Category Archives: ww1

The Tomb of The Unknown Warrior

The Unknown Warrior

unknown soldier blog header

 

The British grave of The Unknown Warrior (often known as ‘The Tomb of The Unknown Warrior’) holds an unidentified British soldier killed on a European battlefield during the First World War.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, London on 11 November 1920, simultaneously with a similar interment of a French unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in France, making both graves the first to honour the unknown dead of the First World War. It is the first example of a tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

 

History of the Unknown Warrior

 

Origins

David railton

David Railton

The idea of a Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was first conceived in 1916 by the Reverend David Railton, who, while serving as an army chaplain on the Western Front, had seen a grave marked by a rough cross, which bore the pencil-written legend ‘An Unknown British Soldier’.

He wrote to the Dean of Westminster in 1920 proposing that an  unidentified British soldier from the battlefields in France be buried with due ceremony in Westminster Abbey “amongst the kings” to represent the many hundreds of thousands of Empire dead.

The idea was strongly supported by the Dean and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George

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Funeral of the Unknown Warrior

 

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Selection, arrival and ceremony

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Lord Curzon of Kedleston 

Arrangements were placed in the hands of Lord Curzon of Kedleston who prepared in committee the service and location. Suitable remains were exhumed from various battlefields and brought to the chapel at Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise near Arras, France on the night of 7 November 1920. The bodies were received by the Reverend George Kendall OBE. Brigadier L.J. Wyatt and Lieutenant Colonel E.A.S. Gell of the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries went into the chapel alone.

The remains were then placed in four plain coffins each covered by Union Flags: the two officers did not know from which battlefield any individual soldier had come. Brigadier Wyatt with closed eyes rested his hand on one of the coffins. The other soldiers were then taken away for reburial by Kendall.

 

The body of the Unknown Warrior leaving france.jpg

The body of the Unknown Warrior leaving France

The coffin of the unknown warrior then stayed at the chapel overnight and on the afternoon of 8 November, it was transferred under guard and escorted by Kendall, with troops lining the route, from Ste Pol to the medieval castle within the ancient citadel at Boulogne. For the occasion, the castle library was transformed into a chapelle ardente: a company from the French 8th Infantry Regiment, recently awarded the Légion d’Honneur en masse, stood vigil overnight.

The following morning, two undertakers entered the castle library and placed the coffin into a casket of the oak timbers of trees from Hampton Court PalaceThe casket was banded with iron, and a medieval crusader’s sword chosen by King George V personally from the Royal Collection was affixed to the top and surmounted by an iron shield bearing the inscription

 

‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914–1918 for King and Country’.

The casket was then placed onto a French military wagon, drawn by six black horses. At 10.30 am, all the church bells of Boulogne tolled; the massed trumpets of the French cavalry and the bugles of the French infantry played Aux Champs (the French “Last Post“).

Then, the mile-long procession—led by one thousand local schoolchildren and escorted by a division of French troops—made its way down to the harbour.

At the quayside, Marshal Foch saluted the casket before it was carried up the gangway of the destroyer, HMS Verdun, and piped aboard with an admiral’s call. The Verdun slipped anchor just before noon and was joined by an escort of six battleships.

As the flotilla carrying the casket closed on Dover Castle it received a 19-gun Field Marshal‘s salute. It was landed at Dover Marine Railway Station at the Western Docks on 10 November. The body of the Unknown Warrior was carried to London in South Eastern and Chatham Railway General Utility Van No.132, which had previously carried the bodies of Edith Cavell and Charles Fryatt.

 

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Plaque at Victoria Station

The van has been preserved by the Kent and East Sussex RailwayThe train went to Victoria Station, where it arrived at platform 8 at 8.32 pm that evening and remained overnight. (A plaque at Victoria Station marks the site: every year on 10 November, a small Remembrance service, organised by The Western Front Association, takes place between platforms 8 and 9.)

On the morning of 11 November 1920, the casket was placed onto a gun carriage of the Royal Horse Artillery and drawn by six horses through immense and silent crowds. As the cortege set off, a further Field Marshal’s salute was fired in Hyde Park.

The route followed was Hyde Park CornerThe Mall, and to Whitehall where the Cenotaph, a “symbolic empty tomb”, was unveiled by King-Emperor George V. The cortège was then followed by The King, the Royal Family and ministers of state to Westminster Abbey, where the casket was borne into the West Nave of the Abbey flanked by a guard of honour of one hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross

 

coffin of the unknown soldier

The guests of honour were a group of about one hundred women. They had been chosen because they had each lost their husband and all their sons in the war.

 “Every woman so bereft who applied for a place got it”.

 

The coffin was then interred in the far western end of the Nave, only a few feet from the entrance, in soil brought from each of the main battlefields, and covered with a silk pall. Servicemen from the armed forces stood guard as tens of thousands of mourners filed silently past. The ceremony appears to have served as a form of catharsis for collective mourning on a scale not previously known.

The grave was then capped with a black Belgian marble stone (the only tombstone in the Abbey on which it is forbidden to walk) featuring this inscription, composed by Herbert Edward Ryle, Dean of Westminster, engraved with brass from melted down wartime ammunition:

Beneath this stone rests the body
Of a British warrior
Unknown by name or rank
Brought from France to lie among
The most illustrious of the land
And buried here on Armistice Day
11 Nov: 1920, in the presence of
His Majesty King George V
His Ministers of State
The Chiefs of his forces
And a vast concourse of the nation

Thus are commemorated the many
Multitudes who during the Great
War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that
Man can give life itself
For God
For King and country
For loved ones home and empire
For the sacred cause of justice and
The freedom of the world

They buried him among the kings because he
Had done good toward God and toward
His house

Around the main inscription are four New Testament quotations:

The Lord knoweth them that are his (top; 2 Timothy 2:19)
Unknown and yet well known, dying and behold we live (side; 2 Corinthians 6:9)
Greater love hath no man than this (side; John 15:13)
In Christ shall all be made alive (base; 1 Corinthians 15:22)

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The Actual “Unknown Soldier” – Remembrance Day – WW

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Later history

A year later, on 17 October 1921, the unknown warrior was given the United States’ highest award for valour, the Medal of Honor, from the hand of General John Pershing; it hangs on a pillar close to the tomb. On 11 November 1921, the American Unknown Soldier was reciprocally awarded the Victoria Cross.

Princess Elizabeth's wedding bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, a tradition started by her mother in 1923..JPG

Princess Elizabeth’s wedding bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, a tradition started by her mother in 1923.

When Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the future King George VI on 26 April 1923, she laid her bouquet at the Tomb on her way into the Abbey, as a tribute to her brother Fergus who had died at the Battle of Loos in 1915 (and whose name was then listed among those of the missing on the Loos Memorial, although in 2012 a new headstone was erected in the Quarry Cemetery, Vermelles).

Royal brides married at the Abbey now have their bouquets laid on the tomb the day after the wedding and all of the official wedding photographs have been taken. It is also the only tomb not to have been covered by a special red carpet for the wedding of Prince Albert, Duke of York, and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

The bridal bouquet rests on the grave

Kate Middleton’s bridal bouquet 

Meghan follows royal traditional as her bridal bouquet

Meghan follows royal traditional as her bridal bouquet is laid on the tomb of The Unknown Warrior. 

Before she died in 2002, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (the same Elizabeth who first laid her wedding bouquet at the tomb) expressed the wish for her wreath to be placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, laid the wreath the day after the funeral.

The British Unknown Warrior came 76th in the 100 Great Britons poll. The LMS-Patriot Project a charitable organisation, is building a new steam locomotive that will carry the name The Unknown Warrior. The new loco has been endorsed by the Royal British Legion as the new National Memorial Engine. A public appeal to build the locomotive was launched in 2008. The Unknown Warrior is expected to be complete by January 2019—one year late of the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice.

Heads of state from over 70 countries have lain wreaths in memoriam of the Unknown Warrior.

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Great War Tour Ep 2 – Identifying the Unknown Soldier

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Source :  Wikipedia – The Unknown Warrior

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Telegraph Story

Kate Middleton’s bridal bouquet placed at Grave of Unknown Warrior

Kate Middleton's bridal bouquet placed at Grave of Unknown Warrior.jpg

As tradition dictates, Kate Middleton’s bridal bouquet was laid at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior inside Westminster Abbey after the Royal wedding ceremony was completed.
It is understood that the bouquet was placed at the grave, which is located at the nave in the west end of the Abbey, by a royal official after the official wedding photographs were completed.
The tradition began in 1923 following the wedding of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – the future Queen Elizabeth – to the Duke of York, who later became George VI.
Lady Elizabeth, who became the Queen Mother in 1952, left her bouquet at the grave in memory of her brother Fergus, a young officer who was killed on the Western Front in 1915.
The grave is one of the most sacred places in the Abbey and is the only part of the floor upon which the congregations are not allowed to walk.

It is thought that the idea to commemorate the unknown war dead of the 1914-18 conflict, which saw a generation perish on Western Front, came from the Rev David Railton who served as a chaplain during the conflict.

Legend has it that in 1916, while serving in Armentieres, Rev Railton noticed a grave in the garden with a rough hand-made cross bearing the inscription “An unknown British Soldier”.

In 1920, Rev Railton wrote to Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster with the suggestion that all of those who died in the trenches and whose bodies were never be found should be remembered.

The body of a soldier was exhumed from a mass grave in France after the First World War and was buried on 11 November 1920.

The grave which contains soil from France, is covered by a slab of black Belgian marble from a quarry near Namur and contains an inscription composed by Herbert Ryle, who at the time was the Dean of Westminster.

In the week after the unknown soldier was laid to rest, more than 1.2 million people visited the Abbey and the site is now one of the world’s most visited graves.

The body was chosen from four unknown British servicemen exhumed from four battle areas, the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres.

The remains were brought to the chapel at St. Pol on the night of 7 November 1920. The General Officer in charge of troops in France and Flanders, Brigadier General L.J.Wyatt, with Colonel Gell, went into the chapel alone, where the bodies on stretchers were covered by Union Flags. General Wyatt selected one and the two officers placed it in a plain coffin and sealed it.

The other bodies were reburied. The destroyer HMS Verdun, whose ship’s bell now hangs near the grave in the Abbey, transported the coffin to Dover and it was then taken by train to Victoria station in London where it rested overnight.

On the morning of 11 November the coffin was placed on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses and began its journey through the crowd-lined streets.

The coffin to the Nave through a guard of honour of 100 holders of the Victoria Cross, During the shortened form of the Burial Service, after the hymn “Lead kindly light”, the King stepped forward and dropped a handful of French earth onto the coffin as it was lowered into the grave.

Among the daughters-in-law of Queen Elizabeth II, only Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York had laid her bouquet on the tomb as her wedding to the Queen’s second son, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, in July 1986 was held at Westminster Abbey.

Diana and Charles were married at St. Paul’s Cathedral in July 1981, the Queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex and Sophie Rhys-Jones were married at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle in June 1999 while Prince Charles’s church’s blessing with Camilla Parker-Bowles happened also at St. George’s chapel.

Read more : Telegraph 

 

 

 

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The Ulster Tower – Lest We Forget

The Ulster Memorial Tower

ulster tower with text

Lest We Forget!

Image result for Ulster Tower, Thiepval, the Somme

The Ulster Tower is Northern Ireland’s national war memorial. It was one of the first Memorials to be erected on the Western Front and commemorates the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division and all those from Ulster who served in the First World War.

The memorial was officially opened on 19 November 1921 and is a very close copy of Helen’s Tower which stands in the grounds of the Clandeboye Estate, near Bangor, County DownNorthern Ireland. Many of the men of the Ulster Division trained in the estate before moving to England and then France early in 1916.

The Tower (plus a small cafe nearby) is staffed by members of the Somme Association, which is based in Belfast.

 

1916 Battle

The Division attacked the Schwaben Redoubt, which is near the Ulster Tower, on 1 July 1916. The Schwaben Redoubt was a little to the north-east of where the tower stands, and was a triangle of trenches with a frontage of 300 yards, a fearsome strongpoint with commanding views. It is also located close to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

The front lines were at the edge of Thiepval Wood which lies to the south-west of the road between the Thiepval Memorial and the Ulster Tower. Troops of the 109th Brigade crossed about 400 yards of no man’s land, and kept on going. They entered the Schwaben Redoubt, and advanced on towards Stuff Redoubt, gaining in all around a mile, though not without losses. To their left, the 108th Brigade were successful in advancing near Thiepval, but less so nearer the River Ancre.

The 107th Brigade supported them, but although men of the 36th Division held out for the day the Germans mounted counterattacks, and as their stocks of bombs and ammunition dwindled, many fell back with small parties remaining in the German front lines. The casualties suffered by the 36th Division on 1 July totalled over 5,000.

 

Memorial

At the entrance to the tower is a plaque commemorating the names of the nine men of the Division who won the Victoria Cross during the Somme. There is also a memorial here commemorating the part played by members of the Orange Order during the battle. The inscription on this memorial reads:

“This Memorial is Dedicated to the Men and Women of the Orange Institution Worldwide, who at the call of King and country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of man by the path of duty and self sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in Freedom. Let those who come after see to it that their names be not forgotten.”

Commemorations

The Inscription on the Memorial Reads : “This Memorial is Dedicated to the Men and Women of the Orange Institution Worldwide, who at the call of King and country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of man by the path of duty and self sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in Freedom. Let those who come after see to it that their names be not forgotten.”

There are 5 known Orangemen who were awarded the Victoria Cross .

  • Private George Richardson (VC) from Cavan who was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery during the Indian Mutiny and was recommended on 3 other occasions for the same award. He served in the 34th Regiment of Foot, later the Border Regiment. Private Richardson later emigrated to Canada.
  • Robert Hill Hanna, born in Kilkeel, Co. Down, emigrated to Canada, member of Ontario LOL 2226, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry at Lens, France, 21 September 1917, during the WW1, when serving with the Canadian Army.
  • Rev John Weir Foote, was a Captain, later Colonel, in the Canadian Chaplain Service, attached to the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. A member of Fraserville LOL Ontario. He was with the Canadians during the Dieppe Raid, and stayed on to minister to wounded, subsequently captured by the Germans. Weir was awarded the VC in February 1946 for services above and beyond the call of duty during World War II.
  • Riflemen Robert Quigg from Bushmills was awarded the medal for his courage on the Somme on 1 July 1916.
  • Englishman Abraham Acton, from Whitehaven, Cumberland, was awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery at Rouge Bances, 21 December in 1914. Acton was killed in action at Ypres in 1915 at the age of 22, and he has no known grave.

Orangemen Robert Dixon I2442 Toronto serving with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and Lieutenant J McCormick from Canada were recommended for the Victoria Cross

 

See: 36th (Ulster) Division

 

First day on the Somme- The Bloodiest Day

The Bloodiest Day

Image result for The Bloodiest Day battle of somme

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, in northern France, was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army and one of the most infamous days of World War One.

On 1 July 1916, the British forces suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 fatalities. They gained just three square miles of territory. British and German troops faced each other’s trenches only separated by a few hundred yards of “no-man’s land”.

The British force consisted of soldiers from Britain and Ireland, as well as troops from Newfoundland, South Africa and India.

The British generals staged a massive artillery bombardment and sent 100,000 men over the top to take the German trenches.

They were confident of victory. But the British soldiers were unable to break through the German defences and were mown down in their thousands by machine gun and artillery fire.

This day set a bloody precedent: the Somme campaign wore on for five months and, in all, more than a million soldiers from the British, German and French armies were wounded or killed.

See here for more details on first day of Battle of Somme 

 

William Frederick “Billy” McFadzean VC – Lest We Forget

William Frederick “Billy” McFadzean VC (9 October 1895 – 1 July 1916) was born in Lurgan, County Armagh. From Ulster, he was a recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

 

William McFadzean
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William McFadzean as shown on a mural in Cregagh, Belfast
Nickname(s) Billy
Born 9 October 1895
Lurgan, County Armagh
Died 1 July 1916 (aged 20)
Thiepval, France
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Years of service 1914 – 1916
Rank Rifleman
Unit 14th Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles
Battles/wars World War IBattle of the Somme
Awards Victoria Cross

Private Billy McFadzean 36th Ulster Tribute

Details

McFadzean was a 20-year-old rifleman in the 14th Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles, British Army during the First World War. On 1 July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme near Thiepval Wood, France, a box of hand grenades slipped into a crowded trench. Two of the safety pins in the grenades were dislodged. McFadzean threw himself on top of the grenades, which exploded, killing him but injuring only one other.

His citation read:

No. 14/18278 Pte. William Frederick McFadzean, late R. Ir. Rif.

For most conspicuous bravery. While in a concentration trench and opening a box of bombs for distribution prior to an attack, the box slipped down into the trench, which was crowded with men, and two of the safety pins fell out. Private McFadzean, instantly realising the danger to his comrades, with heroic courage threw himself on the top of the Bombs. The bombs exploded blowing him to pieces, but only one other man was injured. He well knew his danger, being himself a bomber, but without a moment’s hesitation he gave his life for his comrades.

McFadzean’s father was presented with his son’s VC by King George V in Buckingham Palace, London on 28 February 1917.

His Victoria Cross is displayed at The Royal Ulster Rifles Museum, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

McFadzean played rugby for Collegians RFC.[ He was also a member of the East Belfast Regiment of the Ulster Volunteers and the Young Citizens Volunteers

Billy Mcfadzean

Legacy

Private McFadzean was remembered in song:

Let me tell you a story of honour and glory
Of a young Belfast soldier Billy McFadzean by name
For King and for Country Young Billy died bravely
And won the VC on the fields of the Somme
Gone Like the snowflake that melts on the river
Gone like the first rays of days early dawn
Like the foam from the fountain
Like the mist from the mountain
Young Billy McFadzean’s dear life has gone
Now Billy lies only where the red Flanders poppy
In wildest profusion paints the field of the brave
No piper recalling his deeds all forgotten
For Billy McFadzean has no known grave
Chorus
So let us remember that brave Ulster soldier
The VC he won the young life that he gave
For duty demanding his courage outstanding
Private Billy McFadzean of the U.V.F.

 

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Operation Barbarossa 22nd June 1941

 

Operation Barbarossa

22nd June 1941

Operation Barbarossa (German: Unternehmen Barbarossa) was the code name for Nazi Germany‘s World War II invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on 22 June 1941. The operation was driven by Adolf Hitler‘s ideological desire to conquer Soviet territory as outlined in his 1925 manifesto Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”).

Mein Kampf dust jacket.jpeg

In the two years leading up to the invasion, the two countries signed political and economic pacts for strategic purposes. Nevertheless, on 18 December 1940, Hitler authorized an invasion of the Soviet Union, with a planned start date of 15 May 1941. The actual invasion began on 22 June 1941.

Over the course of the operation, about four million soldiers of the Axis powers invaded the Soviet Union along a 2,900-kilometer (1,800 mi) front, the largest invasion force in the history of warfare. In addition to troops, the Germans employed some 600,000 motor vehicles and between 600,000 and 700,000 horses. It marked the beginning of the rapid escalation of the war, both geographically and in the formation of the Allied coalition.

Operationally, the Germans won resounding victories and occupied some of the most important economic areas of the Soviet Union, mainly in Ukraine, both inflicting and sustaining heavy casualties. Despite their successes, the German offensive stalled on the outskirts of Moscow and was subsequently pushed back by a Soviet counteroffensive.

Military insignia of the Red Army, 1919–1924

The Red Army repelled the Wehrmacht‘s strongest blows and forced Germany into a war of attrition for which it was unprepared. The Germans would never again mount a simultaneous offensive along the entire strategic Soviet-Axis front. The failure of the operation drove Hitler to demand further operations inside the USSR of increasingly limited scope, all of which eventually failed, such as Case Blue and Operation Citadel.

The failure of Operation Barbarossa was a turning point in the fortunes of the Third Reich. Most importantly, the operation opened up the Eastern Front, to which more forces were committed than in any other theater of war in world history.

The Eastern Front became the site of some of the largest battles, most horrific atrocities, and highest casualties for Soviets and Germans alike, all of which influenced the course of both World War II and the subsequent history of the 20th century. The German forces captured millions of Soviet prisoners who were not granted protections stipulated in the Geneva Conventions. Most of them never returned alive; Germany deliberately starved the prisoners to death as part of a “Hunger Plan” that aimed to reduce the population of Eastern Europe and then re-populate it with ethnic Germans. Over a million Soviet Jews were murdered by Einsatzgruppen death squads and gassing as part of the Holocaust.

 

Background

Racial policies of Nazi Germany

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 The Path to Nazi Genocide
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As early as 1925, Adolf Hitler vaguely declared in his political manifesto and autobiography Mein Kampf that he would invade the Soviet Union, asserting that the German people needed to secure Lebensraum (“living space”) to ensure the survival of Germany for generations to come.

On 10 February 1939, Hitler told his army commanders that the next war would be :

“purely a war of Weltanschauungen… totally a people’s war, a racial war.” On 23 November, once World War II had already started, Hitler declared that “racial war has broken out and this war shall determine who shall govern Europe, and with it, the world.”

 

Racial policy of Nazi Germany viewed the Soviet Union (and all of Eastern Europe) as populated by non-Aryan Untermenschen (“sub-humans”), ruled by “Jewish Bolshevik conspirators”. Hitler claimed in Mein Kampf that Germany’s destiny was to “turn to the East” as it did “six hundred years ago”. Accordingly, it was stated Nazi policy to kill, deport, or enslave the majority of Russian and other Slavic populations and repopulate the land with Germanic peoples, under the Generalplan Ost.

The Germans’ belief in their ethnic superiority is discernible in official German records and by pseudoscientific articles in German periodicals at the time, which covered topics such as “how to deal with alien populations”.

While older historiography tended to emphasize the notion of a “clean” Wehrmacht, the historian Jürgen Förster (de) notes that “In fact, the military commanders were caught up in the ideological character of the conflict, and involved in its implementation as willing participants.”

Before and during the invasion of the Soviet Union, German troops were heavily indoctrinated with anti-Bolshevik, anti-Semitic and anti-Slavic ideology via movies, radio, lectures, books and leaflets.

Likening the Soviets to the forces of Genghis Khan, Hitler told Croatian military leader Slavko Kvaternik that the “Mongolian race” threatened Europe.

Following the invasion, Wehrmacht officers told their soldiers to target people who were described as “Jewish Bolshevik subhumans”, the “Mongol hordes”, the “Asiatic flood” and the “Red beast”.

Nazi propaganda portrayed the war against the Soviet Union as both an ideological war between German National Socialism and Jewish Bolshevism and a racial war between the Germans and the Jewish, Gypsies and Slavic Untermenschen.

German army commanders cast the Jews as the major cause behind the “partisan struggle”. The main guideline policy for German troops was “Where there’s a partisan, there’s a Jew, and where there’s a Jew, there’s a partisan,” or “The partisan is where the Jew is.”

Many German troops viewed the war in Nazi terms and regarded their Soviet enemies as sub-human.

After the war began, the Nazis issued a ban on sexual relations between Germans and foreign slave workers.  There were regulations enacted against the Ost-Arbeiter (“Eastern Workers”) that included the death penalty for sexual relations with a German person.

 

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Heinrich Himmler, in his secret memorandum, Reflections on the Treatment of Peoples of Alien Races in the East, (dated 25 May 1940) outlined the future plans for the non-German populations in the East. Himmler believed the Germanization process in Eastern Europe would be complete when “in the East dwell only men with truly German, Germanic blood”.

 

In their plan to create the Greater Germanic Reich the Nazi leadership aimed to conquer Eastern European territories, Germanise those seen as part of the Aryan race, subjugate and exterminate the Soviet populations, and colonise the territory with ethnic German settlers.

The Nazi secret plan Generalplan Ost (“General Plan for the East”), which was prepared in 1941 and confirmed in 1942, called for a “new order of ethnographical relations” in the territories occupied by Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe. The plan envisaged ethnic cleansing, executions and enslavement of the overwhelming majority of the populations of conquered counties with very small differing percentages of the various conquered nations undergoing Germanization, expulsion into the depths of Russia and other fates.

The net effect of this plan would be to ensure that the conquered territories would be Germanized. It was divided into two parts: the Kleine Planung (“Small Plan”), which covered actions to be taken during the war, and the Große Planung (“Large Plan”), which covered actions to be undertaken after the war was won, and to be implemented gradually over a period of 25 to 30 years.

Evidence from a speech given by General Erich Hoepner indicates the disposition of Operation Barbarossa and the Nazi racial plan, as he informed the 4th Panzer Group that the war against the Soviet Union was “an essential part of the German people’s struggle for existence” (Daseinkampf), also referring to the imminent battle as the “old struggle of Germans against Slavs” and even stated, “the struggle must aim at the annihilation of today’s Russia and must therefore be waged with unparalleled harshness.”

To Hoepner, the imminent conflict would be “the old battle of the Germanic against the Slav peoples… the defense of European culture against Moscovite-Asiatic inundation, and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism… No adherents of the present Russian-Bolshevik system are to be spared.” Walther von Brauchitsch also told his subordinates that troops should view the war as a “struggle between two different races and [should] act with the necessary severity.”

Racial motivations were central to Nazi ideology and played a key role in planning for Operation Barbarossa since both Jews and communists were considered equivalent enemies of the Nazi state. Nazi imperialist ambitions were exercised without moral consideration for either group in their ultimate struggle for Lebensraum.

In the eyes of the Nazis, the war against the Soviet Union would be a Vernichtungskrieg, a war of annihilation.

German-Soviet relations of 1939–40

 

The geopolitical disposition of Europe in 1941, immediately before the start of Operation Barbarossa. The grey area represents Nazi Germany, its allies, and countries under its firm control.

In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact in Moscow known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact shortly before the German invasion of Poland that triggered the outbreak of World War II in Europe. A secret protocol to the pact outlined an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union on the division of the eastern European border states between their respective “spheres of influence“: the Soviet Union and Germany would partition Poland in the event of an invasion by Germany, and the Soviets would be allowed to overrun the Baltic states and Finland.

On 23 August 1939 the rest of the world learned of the pact between the Nazis and the Soviets but were unaware of the provisions to partition Poland.

Soviet parade in Lwów, 1939

Soviet parade in Lviv, 1939

The conclusion of this pact was indeed followed by a Soviet invasion of Poland that led to the annexation of the eastern part of the country. The pact stunned the world because of the parties’ earlier mutual hostility and their conflicting ideologies.  As a result of the pact, Germany and the Soviet Union maintained reasonably strong diplomatic relations for two years and fostered an important economic relationship. The countries entered a trade pact in 1940 by which the Soviets received German military equipment and trade goods in exchange for raw materials, such as oil and wheat, to help the Nazis circumvent a British blockade of Germany.

Despite the parties’ ostensibly cordial relations, each side was highly suspicious of the other’s intentions. After Germany entered the Axis Pact with Japan and Italy, it began negotiations about a potential Soviet entry into the pact.

After two days of negotiations in Berlin from 12 to 14 November 1940, Germany presented a written proposal for a Soviet entry into the Axis. On 25 November 1940, the Soviet Union offered a written counter-proposal to join the Axis if Germany would agree to refrain from interference in the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, but Germany did not respond.

Stalin Joseph.jpg

As both sides began colliding with each other in Eastern Europe, conflict appeared more likely, although they did sign a border and commercial agreement addressing several open issues in January 1941. Historian Robert Service avows that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was convinced that the overall military strength of the USSR was such that he had nothing to fear and anticipated an easy victory should Germany attack; moreover, Stalin believed that since the Germans were still fighting the British in the west, Hitler would be unlikely to open up a two front war and subsequently delayed the reconstruction of defensive fortifications in the border regions

When German soldiers swam across the Bug River to warn the Red Army of an impending attack, they were treated like enemy agents and shot.  Some historians believe that Stalin, despite providing an amicable front to Hitler, did not wish to remain allies with Germany. Rather, Stalin might have had intentions to break off from Germany and proceed with his own campaign against Germany to be followed by one against the rest of Europe.

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[Barbarossa] Just a Stupid Idea or not? An Analysis

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German invasion plans

The Marcks Plan (published 5 August 1940) showing the A-A line objective of any invasion of the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s reputation as a brutal dictator contributed both to the Nazis’ justification of their assault and their faith in success; many competent and experienced military officers were killed in the Great Purge of the 1930s, leaving the Red Army with a relatively inexperienced leadership compared to that of their German counterparts. The Nazis often emphasized the Soviet regime’s brutality when targeting the Slavs with propaganda.

They also claimed that the Red Army was preparing to attack the Germans, and their own invasion was thus presented as a pre-emptive strike.

In the middle of 1940, following the rising tension between the Soviet Union and Germany over territories in the Balkans, an eventual invasion of the Soviet Union seemed to Hitler to be the only solution.

While no concrete plans were made yet, Hitler told one of his generals in June that the victories in Western Europe finally freed his hands for his important real task: the showdown with Bolshevism. With the successful end to the campaign in France, General Erich Marcks was assigned to the working group drawing up the initial invasion plans of the Soviet Union. The first battle plans were entitled Operation Draft East (but colloquially it was known as the Marcks Plan).

His report advocated the A-A line to be the operational objective of any invasion of the Soviet Union. This goal would extend from northern city of Arkhangelsk on the Arctic Sea through Gorky and Rostov to the port city of Astrakhan at the mouth of the Volga on the Caspian Sea. The report concluded that this military border would reduce the threat to Germany (and the Third Reich) from attacks by enemy bombers.

Although Hitler was warned by his general staff that occupying “Western Russia” would create “more of a drain than a relief for Germany’s economic situation”, he anticipated compensatory benefits, such as the demobilization of entire divisions to relieve the acute labor shortage in German industry; the exploitation of Ukraine as a reliable and immense source of agricultural products; the use of forced labor to stimulate Germany’s overall economy; and the expansion of territory to improve Germany’s efforts to isolate Great Britain.

Hitler was convinced that Britain would sue for peace once the Germans triumphed in the Soviet Union.

Chef des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht als Generalfeldmarschall.svg

On 5 December 1940, Hitler received the final military plans for the invasion on which the German High Command had been working since July 1940 under the codename “Operation Otto”. Hitler, however, was dissatisfied with these plans and on 18 December issued Führer Directive 21, which called for a new battle plan, now codenamed “Operation Barbarossa”.

Friedrich I. Barbarossa.jpg

Bust of Friedrich I., “Barbarossa”,

The operation was named after medieval Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire, a leader of the Third Crusade in the 12th century. The invasion was set for 15 May 1941, though it was delayed for about 7 weeks in favor of further time for preparation  because of the war in the Balkans.

According to a 1978 essay by German historian Andreas Hillgruber, the invasion plans drawn up by the German military elite were coloured by hubris stemming from the rapid defeat of France at the hands of the “invincible” Wehrmacht and by ignorance tempered by traditional German stereotypes of Russia as a primitive, backward “Asiatic” country. Red Army soldiers were considered brave and tough, but the officer corps was held in contempt. The leadership of the Wehrmacht paid little attention to politics, culture and the considerable industrial capacity of the Soviet Union, in favour of a very narrow military view.

Hillgruber argued that because these assumptions were shared by the entire military elite, Hitler was able to push through with a “war of annihilation” that would be waged in the most inhumane fashion possible with the complicity of “several military leaders”, even though it was quite clear that this would be in violation of all accepted norms of warfare.

In autumn 1940, high-ranking German officials drafted a memorandum on the dangers of an invasion of the Soviet Union. They said Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic States would end up as only a further economic burden for Germany.

It was argued that the Soviets in their current bureaucratic form were harmless and that the occupation would not benefit Germany.  Hitler disagreed with economists about the risks and told his right-hand man Hermann Göring, the chief of the Luftwaffe, that he would no longer listen to misgivings about the economic dangers of a war with Russia.

It is speculated that this was passed on to General Georg Thomas, who had produced reports that predicted a net economic drain for Germany in the event of an invasion of the Soviet Union unless its economy was captured intact and the Caucasus oilfields seized in the first blow, and he consequently revised his future report to fit Hitler’s wishes.

The Red Army‘s ineptitude in the Winter War against Finland in 1939–40 convinced Hitler of a quick victory within a few months. He did not anticipate a long campaign lasting into the winter, and therefore adequate preparations, such as the distribution of warm clothing and winterization of vehicles and lubricants, were not made.

Beginning in March 1941, Göring’s Green Folder laid out details for the disposal of the Soviet economy after conquest. The Hunger Plan outlined how the entire urban population of conquered territories was to be starved to death, thus creating an agricultural surplus to feed Germany and urban space for the German upper class.

Nazi policy aimed to destroy the Soviet Union as a political entity in accordance with the geopolitical Lebensraum ideals for the benefit of future generations of the “Nordic master race“.

n 1941, Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, later appointed Reich Minister of the Occupied Eastern Territories, suggested that conquered Soviet territory should be administered in the following Reichskommissariate (“Reich Commissionerships”):

Administration of conquered Soviet territory by Alfred Rosenberg
Name Notes Map
Reichskommissariat Ostland The Baltic countries and Belarus
Reichskommissariat Ostland (1942).svg
Reichskommissariat Ukraine Ukraine, enlarged eastwards to the Volga
Reichskommissariat Ukraine (1942).svg
Reichskommissariat Kaukasus Southern Russia and the Caucasus region
Unrealized
Reichskommissariat Moskowien Moscow metropolitan area and the rest of European Russia
Unrealized
Reichskommissariat Turkestan Central Asian republics and territories
Unrealized

German military planners also researched Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia. In their calculations, they concluded that there was little danger of a large-scale retreat of the Red Army into the Russian interior, as it could not afford to give up the Baltic states, Ukraine, or the Moscow and Leningrad regions, all of which were vital to the Red Army for supply reasons and would thus have to be defended.

Hitler and his generals disagreed on where Germany should focus its energy. Hitler, in many discussions with his generals, repeated his order of “Leningrad first, the Donbass second, Moscow third”; but he consistently emphasized the destruction of the Red Army over the achievement of specific terrain objectives.

Hitler believed Moscow to be of “no great importance” in the defeat of the Soviet Union and instead believed victory would come with the destruction of the Red Army west of the capital, especially west of the Western Dvina and Dnieper rivers, and this pervaded the plan for Barbarossa. This belief later led to disputes between Hitler and several German senior officers, including Heinz Guderian, Gerhard Engel, Fedor von Bock and Franz Halder, who believed the decisive victory could only be delivered at Moscow.

Hitler had grown overconfident in his own military judgment as a result of the rapid successes in Western Europe.

German preparations

German soldiers (Flamethrower team) in the Soviet Union, June 1941

The Germans had begun massing troops near the Soviet border even before the campaign in the Balkans had finished. By the third week of February 1941, 680,000 German soldiers were gathered in assembly areas on the Romanian-Soviet border.  In preparation for the attack, Hitler moved more than 3.2 million German and about 500,000 Axis soldiers to the Soviet border, launched many aerial surveillance missions over Soviet territory, and stockpiled war materiel in the East.

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Stalin and Ribbentrop after the signature of the Soviet–Nazi German pact. August 23, 1939

Although the Soviet High Command was alarmed by this, Stalin’s belief that the Third Reich was unlikely to attack only two years after signing the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact resulted in a slow Soviet preparation. Since April 1941, the Germans had begun setting up Operation Haifisch to substantiate their claims that Britain was the real target. These simulated preparations in Norway and the English Channel coast included activities such as ship concentrations, reconnaissance flights and training exercises.

 

We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.

Adolf Hitler

The postponement of Barbarossa from the initially planned date of 15 May to the actual invasion date of 22 June 1941 (a 38-day delay) occurred for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the Balkans Campaign required a diversion of troops and resources that hampered preparations, and an unusually wet winter kept rivers at full flood until late spring. The full floods could have discouraged an earlier attack, even if it was unlikely to have happened before the end of the Balkans Campaign.

The importance of the delay is still debated.  William Shirer argued that Hitler’s Balkans Campaign had delayed the commencement of Barbarossa by several weeks and thereby jeopardized it. He cited the deputy chief of the German General Staff in 1941 Friedrich Paulus, who claimed the campaign resulted in a delay of “about five weeks.”

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1987-047-20, Gerd v. Rundstedt.jpg

This figure is corroborated by both the German Naval War Diary and Gerd von Rundstedt.  Antony Beevor names a variety of factors that delayed Barbarossa, including the delay in distributing motor transport, problems with fuel distribution, and the difficulty in establishing forward airfields for the Luftwaffe.

The Germans deployed one independent regiment, one separate motorized training brigade and 153 divisions for Barbarossa, which included 104 infantry, 19 panzer and 15 motorized infantry divisions in three army groups, nine security divisions to operate in conquered territories, four divisions in Finland and two divisions as reserve under the direct control of OKH.

These were equipped with about 3,350 tanks, 7,200 artillery pieces, 2,770 aircraft (that amounted to 65 percent of the Luftwaffe), about 600,000 motor vehicles and 625,000–700,000 horses.  Finland slated 14 divisions for the invasion, and Romania offered 13 divisions and eight brigades over the course of Barbarossa.

The entire Axis forces, 3.8 million personnel, deployed across a front extending from the Arctic Ocean southward to the Black Sea, were all controlled by the OKH and organized into Army Norway, Army Group North, Army Group Center and Army Group South, alongside three luftflotten (air fleets, the air force equivalent of army groups) that supported the army groups: Luftflotte 1 for North, Luftflotte 2 for Center and Luftflotte 4 for South.

Army Norway was to operate in far northern Scandinavia and bordering Soviet territories.  Army Group North was to march through the Baltic states into northern Russia, either take or destroy the city of Leningrad and link up with Finnish forces. Army Group Center, the army group equipped with the most armour and air power, was to strike from Poland into Belorussia and the west-central regions of Russia proper, and advance to Smolensk and then Moscow.

Army Group South was to strike the heavily populated and agricultural heartland of Ukraine, taking Kiev before continuing eastward over the steppes of southern USSR to the Volga with the aim of controlling the oil-rich Caucasus. Army Group South was deployed in two sections separated by a 198-mile (319 km) gap. The northern section, which contained the army group’s only panzer group, was in southern Poland right next to Army Group Center, and the southern section was in Romania.

The German forces in the rear (mostly Waffen-SS and Einsatzgruppen units) were to operate in conquered territories to counter any partisan activity in areas they controlled, as well as to execute captured Soviet political commissars and Jews.

On 17 June, Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) chief Reinhard Heydrich briefed around thirty to fifty Einsatzgruppen commanders on “the policy of eliminating Jews in Soviet territories, at least in general terms.”

While the Einsatzgruppen were assigned to the Wehrmacht’s units, which provided them with supplies such as gasoline and food, they were controlled by the RSHA.  The official plan for Barbarossa assumed that the army groups would be able to advance freely to their primary objectives simultaneously, without spreading thin, once they had won the border battles and destroyed the Red Army’s forces in the border area.

Soviet preparations

М.Н. Тухачевский.jpg

In 1930, Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a prominent military theorist in tank warfare in the interwar period and later Marshal of the Soviet Union, forwarded a memo to the Kremlin that lobbied for colossal investment in the resources required for the mass production of weapons, pressing the case for “40,000 aircraft and 50,000 tanks”. In the early 1930s, a very modern operational doctrine for the Red Army was developed and promulgated in the 1936 Field Regulations in the form of the Deep Battle Concept. Defense expenditure also grew rapidly from just 12 percent of the gross national product in 1933 to 18 percent by 1940.

However, during Stalin’s Great Purge in the late 1930s, which was still partially ongoing at the start of the war in June 1941, the officer corps of the Red Army was decimated and their replacements, appointed by Stalin for political reasons, often lacked military competence.

Of the five Marshals of the Soviet Union appointed in 1935, only two survived Stalin’s purge. 15 out of 16 army commanders, 50 out of the 57 corps commanders, 154 out of the 186 divisional commanders and 401 out of 456 colonels were killed, and many other officers were dismissed.

In total, about 30,000 Red Army personnel were executed. Stalin further underscored his control by reasserting the role of political commissars at the divisional level and below to oversee the political loyalty of the Army to the regime. The commissars held a position equal to that of the commander of the unit they were overseeing. But in spite of efforts to ensure the political subservience of the armed forces, in the wake of Red Army’s poor performance in Poland and in the Winter War, about 80 percent of the officers dismissed during the Great Purge were reinstated by 1941.

Also, between January 1939 and May 1941, 161 new divisions were activated.  Although about 75 percent of all the officers had been in their position for less than one year at the start of the German invasion of 1941, many of the short tenures can be attributed not only to the purge, but also to the rapid increase in creation of military units.

In the Soviet Union, speaking to his generals in December 1940, Stalin mentioned Hitler’s references to an attack on the Soviet Union in Mein Kampf and Hitler’s belief that the Red Army would need four years to ready itself. Stalin declared “we must be ready much earlier” and “we will try to delay the war for another two years”.

As early as August 1940, British intelligence had received hints of German plans to attack the Soviets only a week after Hitler informally approved the plans for Barbarossa and warned the Soviet Union accordingly.  But Stalin’s distrust of the British led him to ignore their warnings in the belief that they were a trick designed to bring the Soviet Union into the war on their side.

He had an ill-founded confidence in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and suspected the British of trying to spread false rumours in order to trigger a war between Germany and the USSR.

In early 1941, Stalin’s own intelligence services and American intelligence gave regular and repeated warnings of an impending German attack. Soviet spy Richard Sorge also gave Stalin the exact German launch date, but Sorge and other informers had previously given different invasion dates that passed peacefully before the actual invasion.

Stalin acknowledged the possibility of an attack in general and therefore made significant preparations, but decided not to run the risk of provoking Hitler.

 

 

Marshal Zhukov speaking at a military conference in Moscow, September 1941

Beginning in July 1940, the Red Army General Staff developed war plans that identified the Wehrmacht as the most dangerous threat to the Soviet Union, and that in the case of a war with Germany, the Wehrmacht’s main attack would come through the region north of the Pripyat Marshes into Belorussia; which later proved to be correct.

But Stalin disagreed, and in October he authorized the development of new plans that assumed a German attack would focus on the region south of Pripyat Marshes towards the economically vital regions in Ukraine. This became the basis for all subsequent Soviet war plans and the deployment of their armed forces in preparation for the German invasion.

In early 1941 Stalin authorized the State Defense Plan 1941 (DP-41), which along with the Mobilization Plan 1941 (MP-41), called for the deployment of 186 divisions, as the first strategic echelon, in the four military districts of the western Soviet Union that faced the Axis territories; and the deployment of another 51 divisions along the Dvina and Dnieper rivers as the second strategic echelon under Stavka control, which in the case of a German invasion was tasked to spearhead a Soviet counteroffensive along with the remaining forces of the first echelon.

But on 22 June 1941 the first echelon only contained 171 divisions, numbering 2.6–2.9 million; and the second strategic echelon contained 57 divisions that were still mobilizing, most of which were still seriously understrength.  The second echelon was undetected by German intelligence until days after the invasion commenced, in most cases only when the German ground forces bumped into them.

At the start of the invasion, the manpower of the Soviet military force that had been mobilized was 5.3–5.5 million, and it was still increasing as the Soviet reserve force of 14 million, with at least basic military training, continued to mobilize.

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The Red Army before operation Barbarossa

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The Red Army was dispersed and still preparing when the invasion commenced. Their units were often separated and lacked adequate transportation.

The Soviet Union had some 23,000 tanks in service, of which about 11,000 were in the western military districts that faced the German invasion force.

Hitler later declared to some of his generals, “If I had known about the Russian tank strength in 1941 I would not have attacked”. However, maintenance and readiness standards were very poor; ammunition and radios were in short supply, and many armoured units lacked the trucks for supplies.

The most advanced Soviet tank models – the KV-1 and T-34 – which were superior to all current German tanks, as well as all designs still in development as of the summer 1941,  were not available in large numbers at the time the invasion commenced.

Furthermore, in the autumn of 1939, the Soviets disbanded their mechanized corps and partly dispersed their tanks to infantry divisions;  but following their observation of the German campaign in France, in late 1940 they began to reorganize most of their armored assets back into mechanized corps with a target strength of 1,031 tanks each. But these large armoured formations were unwieldy, and moreover they were spread out in scattered garrisons, with their subordinate divisions up to 100 kilometres apart.

Furthermore, the reorganization was still in progress and incomplete when Barbarossa commenced. Soviet tank units were rarely well equipped, and they lacked training and logistical support. Units were sent into combat with no arrangements in place for refueling, ammunition resupply, or personnel replacement. Often, after a single engagement, units were destroyed or rendered ineffective . The Soviet numerical advantage in heavy equipment was thoroughly offset by the superior training and organization of the Wehrmacht.

The Soviet Air Force (VVS) held the numerical advantage with a total of approximately 19,533 aircraft, which made it the largest air force in the world in the summer of 1941. About 7,133–9,100 of these were deployed in the five western military districts, and an additional 1445 were under Naval control.

Development of the Soviet Armed Forces

Compiled by Russian military historian Mikhail Meltyukhov from various sources

1 January 1939 22 June 1941 Increase
Divisions calculated 131.5 316.5 140.7%
Personnel 2,485,000 5,774,000 132.4%
Guns and mortars 55,800 117,600 110.7%
Tanks 21,100 25,700 21.8%
Aircraft 7,700 18,700 142.8%

 

Historians have debated whether Stalin was planning an invasion of German territory in the summer of 1941. The debate began in the late 1980s when Viktor Suvorov published a journal article and later the book Icebreaker in which he stated that Stalin had seen the outbreak of war in western Europe as an opportunity to spread communist revolutions throughout the continent, and that the Soviet military was being deployed for an imminent attack at the time of the German invasion.  This view had also been advanced by former German generals following the war. Suvorov’s thesis was fully or partially accepted by some historians, including Valeri Danilov, Joachim Hoffmann, Mikhail Meltyukhov and Vladimir Nevezhin, and attracted public attention in Germany, Israel and Russia.

However, it has been strongly rejected by most historians of this period,  and Icebreaker is generally considered to be an “anti-Soviet tract” in western countries.  David Glantz and Gabriel Gorodetsky wrote books to rebut Suvorov’s arguments, and most historians believe that Stalin was seeking to avoid war in 1941 as he believed that his military was not ready to fight the German forces.

Order of battle

Order of battle – June 1941
Axis forces Soviet Forces
Northern Theatre

Army Group North

Army Group Center

Army Group South

Northern Front

North-Western Front

Western Front

South-Western Front

Southern Front


Stavka Reserve Armies (second strategic echelon)[131]

Invasion

 

German infantryman in front of a burning BT-5 tank and a dead crew member in Ukraine, June 1941

At around 1:00 am on 22 June 1941, the Soviet military districts in the border area were alerted by NKO Directive No. 1, which was issued late on night of 21 June. It called on them to “bring all forces to combat readiness,” but to “avoid provocative actions of any kind.”

It took up to 2 hours for several of the units subordinate to the Fronts to receive the order of the directive, and the majority did not receive it before the invasion commenced.

At around 3:15 am on 22 June 1941, the Axis Powers commenced the invasion of the Soviet Union with the bombing of major cities in Soviet-occupied Poland and an artillery barrage on Red Army defences on the entire front.  The heavy air-raids reached as far as Kronstadt near Leningrad, Ismail in Bessarabia, and Sevastopol in the Crimea. Meanwhile, ground troops crossed the border, accompanied in some locales by Lithuanian and Ukrainian fifth columnists.

Roughly three million soldiers of the Wehrmacht went into action and faced slightly fewer Soviet troops at the border.

At around noon, the news of the invasion was broadcast to the population by Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov: “… Without a declaration of war, German forces fell on our country, attacked our frontiers in many places… The Red Army and the whole nation will wage a victorious Patriotic War for our beloved country, for honour, for liberty … Our cause is just. The enemy will be beaten. Victory will be ours!”

By calling upon the population’s devotion to their nation rather than the Party, Molotov struck a patriotic chord that helped a stunned people absorb the shattering news. Within the first few days of the invasion, the Soviet High Command and Red Army were extensively reorganized so as to place them on the necessary war footing. Stalin did not address the nation about the German invasion until 3 July, when he also called for a “Patriotic War … of the entire Soviet people”.

In Germany, on the morning of 22 June, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels announced the invasion to the waking nation in a radio broadcast, “At this moment a march is taking place that, for its extent, compares with the greatest the world has ever seen. I have decided today to place the fate and future of the Reich and our people in the hands of our soldiers. May God aid us, especially in this fight!”

Later the same morning, Hitler proclaimed to his colleagues, “Before three months have passed, we shall witness a collapse of Russia, the like of which has never been seen in history.”

Phase one

 

German advances from June to August 1941

The initial momentum of the German ground and air attack completely destroyed the Soviet organizational command and control within the first few hours, paralyzing every level of command from the infantry platoon to the Soviet High Command in Moscow.

Therefore, Moscow failed to grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe that confronted the Soviet forces in the border area.  At around 7:15 am, Stalin issued NKO Directive No. 2, which announced the invasion to the Soviet Armed Forces, and called on them to attack Axis forces wherever they had violated the borders and launch air strikes into the border regions of German territory.

At around 9:15 pm, Stalin issued NKO Directive No. 3, signed by Marshal Semyon Timoshenko, which now called for a general counteroffensive on the entire front “without any regards for borders” that both men hoped would sweep the enemy from Soviet territory .  Timoshenko’s order was not based on a realistic appraisal of the military situation at hand, and it resulted in devastating casualties.

Air war

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Luftwaffe reconnaissance units worked frantically to plot Soviet troop concentration, supply dumps, and airfields, and mark them down for destruction.  In contrast, Soviet artillery observers based at the border area had been under the strictest instructions not to open fire on German aircraft prior to the invasion.  The Luftwaffe reported to have destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the first day of the invasion and over 3,100 over the first three days.

Hermann Göring, Minister of Aviation and Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, distrusted the reports and ordered the figure checked. Luftwaffe staffs surveyed the wreckage on Soviet airfields, and their original figure proved conservative, as over 2,000 Soviet aircraft were estimated to have been destroyed on the first day of the invasion. In reality, Soviet losses were likely higher; a Soviet archival document recorded the loss of 3,922 Soviet aircraft in the first three days against an estimated loss of 78 German aircraft.

The Luftwaffe reported the loss of only 35 aircraft on the first day of combat.

Russland, bei Bialystock, zerstörtes Flugzeug

A document from the German Federal Archives puts the Luftwaffe’s loss at 63 aircraft for the first day.

By the end of the first week, the Luftwaffe had achieved air supremacy over the battlefields of all the army groups,  but was unable to effect this air dominance over the vast expanse of the western Soviet Union. According to the war diaries of the German High Command, the Luftwaffe by 5 July had lost 491 aircraft with 316 more damaged, leaving it with only about 70 percent of the strength it had at the start of the invasion.

Baltic states

Main article: Baltic Operation

On 22 June, Army Group North attacked the Soviet Northwestern Front and broke through its 8th and 11th Armies. The Soviets immediately launched a powerful counterattack against the German 4th Panzer Group with the Soviet 3rd and 12th Mechanized Corps, but the Soviet attack was defeated.

On 25 June, the 8th and 11th Armies were ordered to withdraw to the Western Dvina River, where it was planned to meetup with the 21st Mechanized Corps and the 22nd and 27th Armies. However, on 26 June, Erich von Manstein‘s LVI Panzer Corps reached the river first and secured a bridgehead across it.

The Northwestern Front was forced to abandon the river defenses, and on 29 June Stavka ordered the Front to withdraw to the Stalin Line on the approaches to Leningrad.  On 2 July, Army Group North began its attack on the Stalin Line with its 4th Panzer Group, and on 8 July captured Pskov, devastating the defenses of the Stalin Line and reaching Leningrad oblast.

The 4th Panzer Group had advanced about 450 kilometres (280 mi) since the start of the invasion and was now only about 250 kilometres (160 mi) from its primary objective Leningrad. On 9 July it began its attack towards the Soviet defenses along the Luga River in Leningrad oblast.

Ukraine and Moldavia

The northern section of Army Group South faced the Southwestern Front, which had the largest concentration of Soviet forces, and the southern section faced the Southern Front. In addition, the Pripyat Marshes and the Carpathian Mountains posed a serious challenge to the army group’s northern and southern sections respectively.

On 22 June, only the northern section of Army Group South attacked, but the terrain impeded their assault, giving the Soviet defenders ample time to react. The German 1st Panzer Group and 6th Army attacked and broke through the Soviet 5th Army Starting on the night of 23 June, the Soviet 22nd and 15th Mechanized Corps attacked the flanks of the 1st Panzer Group from north and south respectively. Although intended to be concerted, Soviet tank units were sent in piecemeal due to poor coordination. The 22nd Mechanized Corp ran into the 1st Panzer Army’s III Motorized Corps and was decimated, and its commander killed.

The 1st Panzer Group bypassed much of the 15th Mechanized Corps, which engaged the German 6th Army’s 297th Infantry Division, where it was defeated by antitank fire and Luftwaffe attacks.  On 26 June, the Soviets launched another counterattack on the 1st Panzer Group from north and south simultaneously with the 9th, 19th and 8th Mechanized Corps, which altogether fielded 1649 tanks, and supported by the remnants of the 15th Mechanized Corps. The battle lasted for four days, ending in the defeat of the Soviet tank units On 30 June Stavka ordered the remaining forces of the Southwestern Front to withdraw to the Stalin Line, where it would defend the approaches to Kiev.

On 2 July, the southern section of Army Group South – the Romanian 3rd and 4th Armies, alongside the German 11th Army – invaded Soviet Moldavia, which was defended by the Southern Front.

Counterattacks by the Front’s 2nd Mechanized Corps and 9th Army were defeated, but on 9 July the Axis advance stalled along the defenses of the Soviet 18th Army between the Prut and Dniester Rivers.

Belorussia

In the opening hours of the invasion, the Luftwaffe destroyed the Western Front’s air force on the ground, and with the aid of Abwehr and their supporting anti-communist fifth columns operating in the Soviet rear paralyzed the Front’s communication lines, which particularly cut off the Soviet 4th Army headquarters from headquarters above and below it.

Wyszkow Bug.jpg

On the same day, the 2nd Panzer Group crossed the Bug River, broke through the 4th Army, bypassed Brest Fortress, and pressed on towards Minsk, while the 3rd Panzer Group bypassed most of the 3rd Army and pressed on towards Vilnius. Simultaneously, the German 4th and 9th Armies engaged the Western Front forces in the environs of Białystok On the order of Dmitry Pavlov, the commander of the Western Front, the 6th and 11th Mechanized Corps and the 6th Cavalry Corps launched a strong counterstrike towards Grodno on 24–25 June in hopes of destroying the 3rd Panzer Group. However, the 3rd Panzer Group had already moved on, with its forward units reaching Vilnius on the evening of 23 June, and the Western Front’s armoured counterattack instead ran into infantry and antitank fire from the V Army Corps of the German 9th Army, supported by Luftwaffe air attacks.

By the night of 25 June, the Soviet counterattack was defeated, and the commander of the 6th Cavalry Corps was captured. The same night, Pavlov ordered all the remnants of the Western Front to withdraw to Slonim towards Minsk.  Subsequent counterattacks to buy time for the withdrawal were launched against the German forces, but all of them failed.

On 27 June, the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Groups met near Minsk and captured the city the next day, completing the encirclement of almost all of the Western Front in two pockets: one around Białystok and another west of Minsk.

The Germans destroyed the Soviet 3rd and 10th Armies while inflicting serious losses on the 4th, 11th and 13th Armies, and reported to have captured 324,000 Soviet troops, 3,300 tanks, 1,800 artillery pieces. On 30 June, Stalin relieved Pavlov of his command, and on 22 July tried and executed him along with many members of his staff on charges of “cowardice” and “criminal incompetence”.

A Soviet directive was issued on 29 June to combat the mass panic rampant among the civilians and the armed forces personnel. The order stipulated swift, severe measures against anyone inciting panic or displaying cowardice. The NKVD worked with commissars and military commanders to scour possible withdrawal routes of soldiers retreating without military authorization. Field expedient general courts were established to deal with civilians spreading rumours and military deserte.

On 29 June, Hitler, through the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army Walther von Brauchitsch, instructed the commander of Army Group Center Fedor von Bock to halt the advance of his panzers until the infantry formations liquidating the pockets catch up. But the commander of the 2nd Panzer Group Heinz Guderian, with the tacit support of Fedor von Bock and the chief of OKH Franz Halder, ignored the instruction and attacked on eastward towards Bobruisk, albeit reporting the advance as a reconnaissance-in-force. He also personally conducted an aerial inspection of the Minsk-Białystok pocket on 30 June and concluded that his panzer group was not needed to contain it, since Hermann Hoth‘s 3rd Panzer Group was already involved in the Minsk pocket.

On the same day, some of the infantry corps of the 9th and 4th Armies, having sufficiently liquidated the Białystok pocket, resumed their march eastward to catch up with the panzer groups. On 1 July, Fedor von Bock ordered the panzer groups to resume their full offensive eastward on the morning of 3 July. But Brauchitsch, upholding Hitler’s instruction, and Halder, unwillingly going along with it, opposed Bock’s order. However, Bock insisted on the order by stating that it would be flatly irresponsible to reverse orders already issued. The panzer groups, however, resumed their offensive on 2 July before the infantry formations had sufficiently caught up.

Phase two

German advances during the opening phases of Operation Barbarossa, August 1941

On 2 July and through the next six days, a rainstorm typical of Belarusian summers slowed the progress of the panzers of Army Group Center, and Soviet defenses stiffened.

The delays gave the Soviets time to organize a massive counterattack against Army Group Center. The army group’s ultimate objective was Smolensk, which commanded the road to Moscow. Facing the Germans was an old Soviet defensive line held by six armies. On 6 July, the Soviets attacked the 3rd Panzer Group with 1000 tanks. The Germans defeated this counterattack with overwhelming air superiority.

The 2nd Panzer Group crossed the Dnieper River and closed in on Smolensk from the south while the 3rd Panzer Group, after defeating the Soviet counterattack, closed on Smolensk from the north. Trapped between their pincers were three Soviet armies. On 18 July, the Panzer Groups came to within sixteen kilometres of closing the gap, but the trap did not snap shut until 26 July.

When the Panzer Groups finally closed the gap, 300,000 Red Army soldiers were captured, but 200,000 Red Army soldiers escaped to stand between the Germans and Moscow.

Four weeks into the campaign, the Germans realized they had grossly underestimated Soviet strength. The German troops had used their initial supplies without attaining the expected strategic freedom of movement.

Operations were now slowed down to allow for resupply; the delay was to be used to adapt strategy to the new situation. Hitler by now had lost faith in battles of encirclement as large numbers of Soviet soldiers had escaped the pincers. He now believed he could defeat the Soviets by economic damage, depriving them of the industrial capacity to continue the war. That meant seizing the industrial center of Kharkov, the Donbass and the oil fields of the Caucasus in the south and the speedy capture of Leningrad, a major center of military production, in the north

Fedor von Bock, the commander of Army Group Center, and almost all the German generals involved in Operation Barbarossa argued vehemently in favor of continuing the all-out drive toward Moscow. Besides the psychological importance of capturing the enemy’s capital, the generals pointed out that Moscow was a major center of arms production, the center of the Soviet communications system and an important transportation hub. More significantly, intelligence reports indicated that the bulk of the Red Army was deployed near Moscow under Semyon Timoshenko for an all-out defense of the capital.

But Hitler was adamant, and he issued a direct order to the panzer commander Heinz Guderian—bypassing Guderian’s commanding officer, von Bock—to send Army Group Center’s tanks to the north and south, temporarily halting the drive to Moscow.

Phase three

 Eastern Front 1941-06 to 1941-09.png

By mid-July, the Germans had advanced within a few kilometers of Kiev below the Pripyat Marshes. The 1st Panzer Group then went south while the 17th Army struck east and trapped three Soviet armies near Uman

As the Germans eliminated the pocket, the tanks turned north and crossed the Dnieper. Meanwhile, the 2nd Panzer Group, diverted from Army Group Center, had crossed the Desna River with 2nd Army on its right flank. The two Panzer armies now trapped four Soviet armies and parts of two other.

By August, as the serviceability and the quantity of the Luftwaffe’s inventory steadily reduced due to combat, while demand for air support only increased as the VVS stubbornly resurged, the Luftwaffe found itself struggling to maintain local air superiority in the front lines.

Also with the onset of bad weather in October, the Luftwaffe was on several occasions forced to halt nearly all aerial operations. The VVS, although faced with the same weather difficulties, had a clear advantage thanks to the prewar experience with cold-weather flying techniques, and the fact that they were operating from intact airbases and airports.

By December, the VVS had matched the Luftwaffe and was even pressing to achieve air supremacy over the battlefields.

For its final attack on Leningrad, the 4th Panzer Group was reinforced by tanks from Army Group Center. On 8 August, the Panzers broke through the Soviet defenses. By the end of August, 4th Panzer Group had penetrated to within 48 kilometers of Leningrad. The Finns had pushed southeast on both sides of Lake Ladoga to reach the old Finnish-Soviet frontier.

 

General Guderian at a forward command post of a Panzer regiment near Kiev, 1941

The Germans attacked Leningrad in August 1941; in the following three “black months” of 1941, 400,000 residents of the city worked to build the city’s fortifications as fighting continued, while 160,000 others joined the ranks of the Red Army. On 7 September, the German 20th Motorized Division seized Shlisselburg, cutting off all land routes to Leningrad. The Germans severed the railroads to Moscow and captured the railroad to Murmansk with Finnish assistance to inaugurate the start of a siege that would last for over two years.

At this stage, Hitler ordered the final destruction of Leningrad with no prisoners taken, and on 9 September, Army Group North began the final push. Within ten days it had advanced within 11 kilometers of the city.

However, the push over the last 10 km (6.2 mi) proved very slow and casualties mounted. Hitler, now out of patience, ordered that Leningrad should not be stormed, but rather starved into submission.  Deprived of its Panzer forces, Army Group Center remained static and was subjected to numerous Soviet counterattacks, in particular the Yelnya Offensive, in which the Germans suffered their first major tactical defeat since their invasion began.

These attacks prompted Hitler to concentrate his attention back to Army Group Center and its drive on Moscow. The Germans ordered the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies to break off their Siege of Leningrad and support Army Group Center in its attack on Moscow.

Before it could begin, operations in Kiev needed to be finished. Half of Army Group Center had swung to the south in the back of the Kiev position, while Army Group South moved to the north from its Dniepr bridgehead.

The encirclement of Soviet forces in Kiev was achieved on 16 September. A savage battle ensued in which the Soviets were hammered with tanks, artillery, and aerial bombardment. After ten days of vicious fighting, the Germans claimed over 600,000 Soviet soldiers captured. Actual losses were 452,720 men, 3,867 artillery pieces and mortars from 43 divisions of the 5th, 21st, 26th, and 37th Soviet Armies.

Phase four

Main article: Battle of Moscow

Soviet planes flying over German positions near Moscow

After Kiev, the Red Army no longer outnumbered the Germans and there were no more trained reserves directly available. To defend Moscow, Stalin could field 800,000 men in 83 divisions, but no more than 25 divisions were fully effective. Operation Typhoon, the drive to Moscow, began on 2 October .  In front of Army Group Center was a series of elaborate defense lines, the first centered on Vyazma and the second on Mozhaysk.

The first blow took the Soviets completely by surprise when the 2nd Panzer Group, returning from the south, took Oryol, just 121 km (75 mi) south of the Soviet first main defense line. Three days later, the Panzers pushed on to Bryansk, while the 2nd Army attacked from the west

The Soviet 3rd and 13th Armies were now encircled. To the north, the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies attacked Vyazma, trapping the 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd Armies.  Moscow’s first line of defense had been shattered. The pocket eventually yielded over 500,000 Soviet prisoners, bringing the tally since the start of the invasion to three million. The Soviets had now only 90,000 men and 150 tanks left for the defense of Moscow .

The German government now publicly predicted the imminent capture of Moscow and convinced foreign correspondents of a pending Soviet collapse.

On 13 October, the 3rd Panzer Group penetrated to within 140 km (87 mi) of the capital. Martial law was declared in Moscow. Almost from the beginning of Operation Typhoon, however, the weather worsened. Temperatures fell while there was a continued rainfall. This turned the unpaved road network into mud and steadily slowed the German advance on Moscow to as little as 3.2 km (2.0 mi) a day

At the same time, the supply situation for the Germans rapidly deteriorated. On 31 October, the German Army High Command ordered a halt to Operation Typhoon while the armies were reorganized. The pause gave the Soviets, who were in a far better supply situation, time to consolidate their positions and organize formations of newly activated reservists. In little over a month, the Soviets organized eleven new armies that included 30 divisions of Siberian troops. These had been freed from the Soviet Far East after Soviet intelligence assured Stalin that there was no longer a threat from the Japanese.

Over 1,000 tanks and 1,000 aircraft arrived along with the Siberian forces.

On 15 November, with the ground hardening due to the cold weather, the Germans once again began the attack on Moscow.[171] Although the troops themselves were now able to advance again, there had been no delay allowed to improve the supply situation. Facing the Germans were the 5th, 16th, 30th, 43rd, 49th, and 50th Soviet armies. The Germans intended to let the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies cross the Moscow Canal and envelop Moscow from the northeast. The 2nd Panzer Group would attack Tula and then close in on Moscow from the south.

As the Soviets reacted to the flanks, the 4th Army would attack the center. In two weeks of desperate fighting, lacking sufficient fuel and ammunition, the Germans slowly crept towards Moscow.

However, in the south, the 2nd Panzer Group was being blocked. On 22 November, Soviet Siberian units, augmented with the 49th and 50th Soviet Armies, attacked the 2nd Panzer Group and inflicted a shocking defeat on the Germans. The 4th Panzer Group pushed the Soviet 16th Army back, however, and succeeded in crossing the Moscow canal to begin the attempted encirclement of Moscow.

 

The German position of advances before the start of Operation Typhoon, September 1941

On 2 December, part of the 258th Infantry Division advanced to within 24 km (15 mi) of Moscow and could see the spires of the Kremlin, but by then the first blizzards had already begu

A reconnaissance battalion also managed to reach the town of Khimki, only about 8 km (5.0 mi) away from the Soviet capital. It captured the bridge over the Moscow-Volga Canal as well as the railway station, which marked the farthest eastern advance of German forces.

But in spite of the progress made, the Wehrmacht was not equipped for winter warfare, and the bitter cold caused severe problems for their guns and equipment. Furthermore, weather conditions grounded the Luftwaffe from conducting any large-scale operations.  Newly created Soviet units near Moscow now numbered over 500,000 men, and on 5 December, they launched a massive counterattack as part of the Battle of Moscow that pushed the Germans back over 320 km (200 mi). By late December 1941, the Germans had lost the Battle for Moscow, and the invasion had cost the German army over 830,000 casualties in killed, wounded, captured or missing in action.

Aftermath

With the failure of the Battle of Moscow, all German plans for a quick defeat of the Soviet Union had to be revised. The Soviet counteroffensives in December 1941 caused heavy casualties on both sides, but ultimately eliminated the German threat to Moscow.

In addition to this devastating setback for Germany, the Soviet Union also suffered heavily from the conflict, losing huge tracts of territory, and vast losses in men and material. Despite the rapid relocation of Red Army armaments installations east of the Urals and a dramatic increase of production in 1942, especially of armour, new aircraft types and artillery, the Wehrmacht was able to mount another large-scale offensive in July 1942. Hitler, having realized that Germany’s oil supply was “severely depleted,”  aimed to capture the oil fields of Baku in an offensive, codenamed Case Blue.

Once again, the Germans quickly overran great expanses of Soviet territory, but they failed to achieve their ultimate goals in the wake of their decisive defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad

By 1943, Soviet armaments production was fully operational and increasingly outproducing the German war economy. The Red Army through steadily more ambitious and tactically sophisticated offensives was able to liberate the areas previously occupied by the German invasion by the summer of 1944. The war ended with the total defeat and occupation of Nazi Germany in May 1945.

War crimes

While the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva convention, this did not mean their soldiers were entirely exempted from the protection it afforded; Germany had signed the treaty and was thus obligated to offer Soviet POWs treatment according to its provisions (as they generally did with other Allied POWs).

Article 82 of the convention specified that “In case, in time of war, one of the belligerents is not a party to the Convention, its provisions shall nevertheless remain in force as between the belligerents who are parties thereto.”

Despite this Hitler called for the battle against the Soviet Union to be a “struggle for existence” and accordingly authorized crimes against Soviet prisoners of war. A Nazi memorandum from 16 July 1941, recorded by Martin Bormann, quotes Hitler saying, “The giant [occupied] area must naturally be pacified as quickly as possible; this will happen at best if anyone who just looks funny should be shot”.

 

Himmler inspecting a prisoner of war camp

Before the war, Hitler issued the notorious Commissar Order, which called for all Soviet political commissars taken prisoner at the front to be shot immediately without trial. German soldiers both willingly and unwillingly participated in these mass killings.

On the eve of the invasion, German soldiers were informed that their battle “demands ruthless and vigorous measures against Bolshevik inciters, guerrillas, saboteurs, Jews and the complete elimination of all active and passive resistance.” Collective punishment was authorized against partisan attacks; if a perpetrator could not be quickly identified, then burning villages and mass executions were considered acceptable reprisals.

An estimated two million Soviet prisoners of war died of starvation during Barbarossa alone; nothing was done for their survival. The famished prisoners of war were hardly able to walk by themselv

By the end of the war, 58 percent of all Soviet prisoners of war died in German captivity.

Organized crimes against civilians, including women and children, were also carried out on a huge scale by the German police and military forces, as well as the local collaborators. Under the command of the Reich Main Security Office, the Einsatzgruppen killing squads conducted large-scale massacres of Jews and communists in conquered Soviet territories. Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg puts the number of Jews murdered by “mobile killing operations” at 1,400,000.

The original instructions to kill “Jews in party and state positions” was broadened to include “all male Jews of military age” and was expanded once more to “all male Jews regardless of age.” By the end of July, the Germans were regularly killing women and children.

On 18 December 1941, Himmler and Hitler discussed the “Jewish question”, and Himmler noted the meeting’s result in his appointment book: “To be annihilated as partisans.” According to Christopher Browning, this represented the Nazi decision of “annihilating Jews and solving the so-called ‘Jewish question’ under the cover of killing partisans.”

In accordance with Nazi policies against “inferior” Asian peoples, Turkmens were also persecuted; according to a post-war report by Prince Veli Kajum Khan, they were imprisoned in concentration camps in terrible conditions, where those deemed to have “Mongolian” features were murdered daily. Asians were also targeted by the Einsatzgruppen and were the subjects of lethal medical experiments and murder at a “pathological institute” in Kiev.

Burning houses suspected of being partisan meeting places and poisoning water wells became common practice for soldiers of the German 9th Army. At Kharkov, the fourth largest city in the Soviet Union, food was provided only to the small number of civilians who worked for the Germans, with the rest designated to slowly starve.

Thousands of Soviets were deported to Germany to be used as slave labor.

The citizens of Leningrad were subjected to heavy bombardment and a siege that would last 872 days and starve more than a million people to death, of whom approximately 400,000 were children below the age of 14. The German-Finnish blockade cut off access to food, fuel and raw materials, and rations reached a low, for the non-working population, of four ounces (five thin slices) of bread and a little watery soup per day.

Starving Soviet civilians began to eat their domestic animals, along with hair tonic and Vaseline. Some desperate citizens resorted to cannibalism; Soviet records list 2,000 people arrested for “the use of human meat as food” during the siege, 886 of them during the first winter of 1941–42.

The Wehrmacht planned to seal off Leningrad, starve out the population, and then demolish the city entirely.

Historical significance

Operation Barbarossa was the largest military operation in human history—more men, tanks, guns and aircraft were committed than had ever been deployed before in a single offensive.  A total of 75 percent of the entire German military participated  The invasion opened up the Eastern Front of World War II, the largest theater of war during that conflict, and it witnessed titanic clashes of unprecedented violence and destruction for four years that resulted in the deaths of more than 26 million people.[205]

More people died fighting on the Eastern Front than in all other fighting across the globe during World War II

Royal Ulster Rifles – Thomas Shaw June 1899 – 2 March 2002

Royal Ulster Rifles

Thomas Shaw fought in Messines, Ypres, and Passchendaele
Thomas Shaw

 

Thomas Shaw June 1899 – 2 March 2002

Shaw was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in June 1899. He first enlisted as a rifleman at 15 in 1914 and went into battle, but was sent home after his brother, a military policeman, met him by chance while in France. In 1916 he joined the 16th battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles and fought in battles such as Messines and Passchendaele. He stayed in Germany as part of the Army of Occupation for six months after the war ended and returned home in April 1919.

During World War II he was in charge of meat rations in Belfast. In 1942, he married his girlfriend Nell; they spent the last 12 years living at sheltered accommodation in Savoy, Bangor, County Down. He died on 2 March 2002 at the age of 102 and was buried in Clandeboye cemetery in Bangor.

Thomas Shaw joins ranks of NI's dead war veterans
Northern Irelands dead War veterans

 

 

A plaque in honour of Thomas Shaw was put up at the front door of the Savoy in Bangor on 4 August 2014

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Royal Ulster Rifles

D Company, Eighteenth Platoon, 2nd Battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles

The Royal Irish Rifles (became the Royal Ulster Rifles from 1 January 1921) was an infantry rifle regiment of the British Army, first created in 1881 by the amalgamation of the 83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment of Foot and the 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment of Foot. The regiment saw service in the Second Boer War, the First World War, the Second World War and the Korean War.

In 1968 the Royal Ulster Rifles was amalgamated with the other regiments of the North Irish Brigade, the Royal Irish Fusiliers (Princess Victoria’s) and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers to create the Royal Irish Rangers. However, in 1992, the Royal Irish Rangers was later merged with the Ulster Defence Regiment to form the Royal Irish Regiment.

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Royal Ulster Rifles – 1954

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Active 1793–1968
Country  United Kingdom
Branch  British Army
Type Rifles
Role Light infantry
Size 1-2 Regular battalions
3 Militia and Special Reserve battalions
Up to 16 Hostilities-only battalions
Garrison/HQ RHQ – Victoria Barracks, Belfast (1881-1937)
St Patrick’s Barracks, Ballymena (1937-1968)
Nickname(s) The Stickies,[1] The Rifles
Motto Quis Separabit (Who shall separate us [from the love of Christ]) (Latin)
Colours None as a rifle regiment
March Quick: “The Ulster Rifles march ‘Off, Off, Said the Stranger'”

Slow: “The South Down Militia”

Engagements Badajoz, Jhansi, Somme, Normandy Landings, Rhine Crossing, Korea

 

History

The regiment’s history dates backs to the reign of King George III. In 1793 the British army expanded to meet the commitments of the war with the French First Republic. As part of that expansion it raised two new regiments of foot, the 83rd and the 86th. At the same time the counties Antrim, Down and Louth regiments of militia were raised.

In 1881, under the Childers Reforms, the 83rd and 86th were amalgamated into a single regiment, named the Royal Irish Rifles, one of eight infantry regiments raised and garrisoned in Ireland. It was the county regiment of Antrim, Down, Belfast and Louth, with its depot located at Belfast. Militarily, the whole of Ireland was administered as a single command within the United Kingdom with Command Headquarters at Parkgate (Phoenix Park) Dublin, directly under the War Office in London.[2]

South African War 1899–1902

Also known as the Second Boer War.

Monument to Royal Irish Rifles in grounds of Belfast City Hall

In October 1905, a memorial was erected in the grounds of Belfast City Hall in memory of the 132 who did not return. Field Marshal Lord Grenfell unveiled the memorial while the Times reported the event.[3]

First World War

Infantry of the Royal Irish Rifles during the Battle of the Somme (1916) in the Great War.

The regiment provided battalions to all three Irish infantry divisions of the Great War: 10th (Irish), 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster). Members of the Ulster Volunteers, Young Citizen Volunteers (and national Volunteers served in all three divisions with the majority of the first two named in 36th (Ulster) Infantry Division. In addition, the 7th Battalion became home to a company of the Royal Jersey Militia, sometimes known as the Jersey Pals.[4] Most battalions served in the trenches of the Western Front.

Men of the 16th (Service) Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, the pioneer battalion of the 36th (Ulster) Division, moving to the frontline 20 November 1917.

The Royal Irish Rifles lost 25,000 officers and men throughout the Great War, with over 7,000 of them being killed in action.[5]

Between the world wars

After the Great War the War Office decided that Ulster should be represented on the Army List as Connaught, Leinster and Munster already had their own regiments and so, in 1920, a new name was proposed for the Royal Irish Rifles. From 1 January 1921 the regiment became the Royal Ulster Rifles.[6]

Despite the change of name, the Regiment continued to accept recruits from the rest of Ireland; for example, almost 50%[7] of personnel in the 1st Battalion who arrived in Korea in 1950 were Irish nationals.

In 1937 the already close relationship with the London Irish Rifles was formally recognised when they were incorporated into the Corps while still retaining their regimental identity as a territorial battalion. Two years later the London Irish formed a second battalion.[8]

Second World War

Regular Army

When war was declared the 1st Battalion was serving in India, with the 31st Independent Brigade Group, which was trained in mountain warfare. When the brigade returned to the United Kingdom, it was decided that, with its light scale of equipment, the brigade could be converted into a glider-borne unit. 31st Infantry Brigade, which also included the 1st Border Regiment, 2nd South Staffs and 2nd Ox and Bucks, was renamed 1st Airlanding Brigade and trained as glider infantry. They were assigned to the 1st Airborne Division, part of the British Army’s airborne forces. The battalion, along with the 2nd Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, were later transferred to join the 12th Devonshire Regiment in the 6th Airlanding Brigade as part of the newly raised 6th Airborne Division which was actually only the second of two airborne divisions created by the British Army in World War II.

Riflemen of the Royal Ulster Rifles, 6 Airlanding Brigade, aboard a jeep and trailer, driving off Landing Zone N past a crashed Airspeed Horsa glider on the evening of 6 June

Carried in Horsa gliders, the battalion took part in Operation Mallard, the British glider-borne landings in the later afternoon of 6 June 1944, otherwise known as D-Day. They served throughout the Battle of Normandy employed as normal infantry until August 1944 and the breakout from the Normandy beachhead where the entire 6th Airborne Division advanced 45 miles in 9 days. They returned to England in September 1944 for rest and retraining until December 1944 when the 6th Airborne was then recalled to Belgium after the surprise German offensive in the Ardennes which is now known as the Battle of the Bulge where the division played a comparatively small role in the mainly-American battle. They then took part in their final airborne mission of the war known as Operation Varsity, which was the airborne element of Operation Plunder, the crossing of the River Rhine by the 21st Army Group in March 1945. The 6th Airborne was joined by the US 17th Airborne Division, and both divisions suffered heavy casualties.

The 2nd Battalion was part of the 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division serving with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France from 1939-1940. The division was commanded by the then Major General Bernard Montgomery who would eventually lead the Anglo-Canadian forces as commander of the 21st Army Group in the North West Europe Campaign. The 3rd Infantry Division took part in the Battle of Dunkirk, where it gained a decent reputation and earned the nickname of ^Monty’s Ironsides^, and had to be evacuated from Dunkirk with the rest of the BEF. The battalion returned to Europe for the D-Day landings in June 1944 and fought in the Battle of Normandy, specifically in Operation Charnwood where they were the first British troops to enter the city of Caen, which had previously seen bitter fighting in the British attempt to capture it. The battalion later fought in Belgium, Holland and Germany

Hostilities-only

The 6th (Home Defence) Battalion was raised in 1939 from No. 200 Group National Defence Companies and consisting of older men with previous military experience who were unfit for active service. On 24 December 1940 the battalion was redesignated as the 30th Battalion, dropping the Home Defence from its title, and converted to a regular infantry battalion. It was disbanded in Northern Ireland in May 1943.[9]

The 7th (Home Defence) Battalion was raised on 29 June 1940, joining the 215th Independent Infantry Brigade (Home). The battalion served in Ulster until leaving for the United Kingdom in September 1942. On 24 December 1941, the battalion was redesignated the 31st Battalion and dropped the Home Defence title.[10]

The 8th Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles was also raised in 1940, and joined 203rd Independent Infantry Brigade (Home). In early 1942 the battalion was transferred to the Royal Artillery and converted into the 117th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery. The regiment served with Home Forces until November 1942 when it was sent overseas to North Africa to fight in the final stages of the North African Campaign as part of the British First Army. In September 1943 the regiment landed in Italy shortly after the initial invasion, now as part of the British Eighth Army, and served on the Italian Front until June 1944, when the regiment was broken up and the men were retrained as infantrymen, due to a severe shortage of infantrymen, particularly in Italy.[11] Many of the men retrained were sent to the 2nd, 7th and 10th battalions of the Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort’s Own), another rifle regiment, in 61st Lorried Infantry Brigade, 6th Armoured Division.

The 70th (Young Soldiers) Battalion was formed on 12 September 1940 at Holywood from the younger soldiers of the 6th and 7th battalions and volunteers of the ages of 18 and 19 who were too young for conscription. The battalion spent most of its time guarding airfields and aerodromes before moving to the United Kingdom in October 1941.[12]

The Royal Ulster Rifles had the unique distinction of being the only infantry regiment of the British Army to have both of its regular battalions involved in the Normandy landings.

After World War II

In 1947 the Royal Ulster Rifles were grouped with the other two remaining Irish regiments, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers, into the North Irish Brigade. A year later, the regiment formed a pipe band, wearing saffron kilts and playing Irish Warpipes. In the same year, in 1948, the 2nd Battalion was amalgamated with the 1st Battalion to form the 1st Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles (83rd and 86th), thus retaining the history of both of the previous regiments of foot.[13] This happened throughout the British Army in 1948 after India gained its independence.

Korean War

The 1st Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles disembarked at Pusan in early November as part of the 29th Independent Infantry Brigade Group. They were transported forward to Uijongbu, where under the direct command of the Eighth United States Army they were directed against guerrilla forces swept past by the rapid progress of the United Nations Army.

By mid December a defensive line was being prepared on the south bank of the River Han on the border with North Korea. protecting the approach to Seoul, the capital of South Korea. As the New Year started, the Fiftieth Chinese Communist Army engaged the United Nations troops focusing on 29 Brigade, who were dispersed over a very wide front (12 miles). The Rifles fighting with 1st Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers were able to hold their position in their first major action at the Battle of Chaegunghyon and the Communist Army’s progress was halted, at least temporarily.

The Chinese Fifth Phase Campaign or the Battle of the Imjin River began on 22 April with the goal of taking Seoul. By 25 April, the Brigade was ordered to withdraw as the Communist forces were threatening to encircle it. With virtually no cover and seriously outnumbered, the Rifles came under heavy fire as they withdrew to a blocking position. The Brigade was able to hold its position, despite fierce fighting, and neutralized the effectiveness of the Sixty-fourth Chinese Communist Army. Although the enemy’s offensive had come within 5 miles of Seoul, the capital had been saved.[14]

At the time, the Times reported the Battle of Imjin concluding with:

The fighting 5th wearing St George and the Dragon and the Irish Giants with the Harp and Crown have histories that they would exchange with no one. As pride, sobered by mourning for fallen observes how well these young men have acquitted themselves in remotest Asia. The parts taken by the regiments may be seen as a whole. The motto of the Royal Ulster Rifles may have the last word Quis Separabit. (Who shall separate us)[14]

As a result of this action, members of the Rifles were awarded 2 Distinguished Service Orders, 2 Military Crosses, 2 Military Medals, and 3 men were Mentioned in Despatches.[7] When the area was recaptured, a memorial was erected to the 208 men killed or missing after the battle.[15] It stood over-looking the battlefield till 1962 when Seoul’s growth threatened to consume it, and it was carried by HMS Belfast back to Ireland where it was the focusof the Regiment’s St Patrick’s Barracks in Ballymena.[7] When the barracks closed in 2008,[16] the Imjin River Memorial was again moved, this time to the grounds of the Belfast City Hall.

In 1968 the Royal Ulster Rifles amalgamated with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers to form the Royal Irish Rangers (27th (Inniskilling), 83rd and 87th). A further amalgamation took place with the Ulster Defence Regiment in 1992 to form the Royal Irish Regiment (27th Inniskilling, 83rd, 87th and the Ulster Defence Regiment).

 

Veterans

Veterans of the Royal Ulster Rifles in Northern Ireland remain few, as only around four veterans are known to be still alive today in Northern Ireland. However, many of them are still widely involved today, as several of them have participated in the annual Korea Day in Northern Ireland, along with three of them travelling to South Korea on the Revisit Program in April 2013 in association with the Somme Association to visit the sites of Battles like the Battle of the Imjin River, with the help of current serving Army officers in Northern Ireland. The legacy of these veterans is still alive today, as one of the dedicated veterans’ grandson travelled to Seoul, South Korea to attend a United Nations Youth Peace Camp in Seoul with 16 other delegations in July 2014, to learn about the sacrifice their grandparents had made to themselves and their country, and the Republic of Korea 60 years ago.[citation needed]

Victoria Cross

Recipients of the Victoria Cross:

  • Lieutenant H. S. Cochrane, 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment of Foot, Betwa, India, April 1858
  • Lieutenant H. E. Jerome, 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment of Foot, Jhansi, India, April 1858
  • Private James Byrne, 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment of Foot, Jhansi, India, April 1858
  • Private James Pearson, 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment of Foot, Jhansi, India, April 1858
  • Rifleman William Frederick McFadzean. 14th (Service) Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles. 1916. Thiepval.
  • Rifleman Robert Quigg. 12th (Service) Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles. 1916. Hamel, Somme.
  • Second Lieutenant Edmund De Wind. 15th (Service) Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles. 1918. Grugies, France.

Visit the Royal Ulster Rifles Museum

Western Front 1914 – Christmas Truce – 1914.

The Christmas Truce

The Christmas truce (German: Weihnachtsfrieden; French: Trêve de Noël) was a series of widespread but unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front around Christmas 1914. In the week leading up to the holiday, German and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. In areas, men from both sides ventured into no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing.

Men played games of football with one another, giving one of the most enduring images of the truce. However, the peaceful behaviour was not ubiquitous; fighting continued in some sectors, while in others the sides settled on little more than arrangements to recover bodies.

christmas-truce-football

The following year, a few units arranged ceasefires, but the truces were not nearly as widespread as in 1914; this was, in part, due to strongly worded orders from the high commands of both sides prohibiting fraternisation. Soldiers were no longer amenable to truce by 1916. The war had become increasingly bitter after devastating human losses suffered during the battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the incorporation of poison gas.

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The Christmas Truce of 1914

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The truces were not unique to the Christmas period, and reflected a growing mood of “live and let live“, where infantry in close proximity would stop overtly aggressive behaviour, and often engage in small-scale fraternisation, engaging in conversation or bartering for cigarettes. In some sectors, there would be occasional ceasefires to allow soldiers to go between the lines and recover wounded or dead comrades, while in others, there would be a tacit agreement not to shoot while men rested, exercised, or worked in full view of the enemy.

The Christmas truces were particularly significant due to the number of men involved and the level of their participation – even in very peaceful sectors, dozens of men openly congregating in daylight was remarkable – and are often seen as a symbolic moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent events of human history.

 

Background

The first five months of World War I had seen an initial German attack through Belgium into France, which had been repulsed outside Paris by French and British troops at the Battle of the Marne in early September 1914. The Germans fell back to the Aisne valley, where they prepared defensive positions. In the subsequent Battle of the Aisne, the Allied forces were unable to push through the German line, and the fighting quickly degenerated into a stalemate; neither side was willing to give ground, and both started to develop fortified systems of trenches.

To the north, on the right of the German army, there had been no defined front line, and both sides quickly began to try to use this gap to outflank one another; in the ensuing “Race to the Sea“, the two sides repeatedly clashed, each trying to push forward and threaten the end of the other’s line. After several months of fighting, during which the British forces were withdrawn from the Aisne and sent north into Flanders, the northern flank had developed into a similar stalemate. By November, there was a continuous front line running from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, occupied on both sides by armies in prepared defensive positions.[1]

Christmas Cheer

 Soldiers of the 5th London Rifle Brigade with German Saxon regimental troops during the truce at Ploegsteert

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The Great War: Christmas Truce (WWI Documentary)

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Fraternisation

Fraternisation – peaceful and sometimes friendly interactions between opposing forces – was a regular feature in quiet front-line sectors of the Western Front. In some areas, it manifested simply as a passive inactivity, where both sides would refrain from overtly aggressive or threatening behaviour, while in other cases it extended to regular conversation or even visits from one trench to another.

Truces between British and German units can be dated to early November 1914, around the time opposing armies had begun static trench warfare. At this time, both sides’ rations were brought up to the front line after dusk, and soldiers on both sides noted a period of peace while they collected their food.  By 1 December, a British soldier could record a friendly visit from a German sergeant one morning:

“to see how we were getting on”.

Relations between French and German units were generally more tense, but the same phenomenon began to emerge. In early December, a German surgeon recorded a regular half-hourly truce each evening to recover dead soldiers for burial, during which French and German soldiers exchanged newspapers.

This behaviour was often challenged by both junior and senior officers; the young Charles de Gaulle wrote on 7 December of the “lamentable” desire of French infantrymen to leave the enemy in peace, while the commander of 10th Army, Victor d’Urbal, wrote of the

“unfortunate consequences” when men “become familiar with their neighbours opposite”.

Other truces could be enforced on both sides by weather conditions, especially when trench lines flooded in low-lying areas, though these often lasted after the weather had cleared.

The close proximity of trench lines made it easy for soldiers to shout greetings to each other, and this may have been the most common method of arranging informal truces during 1914. Men would frequently exchange news or greetings, helped by a common language; many German soldiers had lived in England, particularly London, and were familiar with the language and the culture. Several British soldiers recorded instances of Germans asking about news from the football leagues, while other conversations could be as banal as discussions of the weather or as plaintive as messages for a sweetheart.

One unusual phenomenon that grew in intensity was music; in peaceful sectors, it was not uncommon for units to sing in the evenings, sometimes deliberately with an eye towards entertaining or gently taunting their opposite numbers. This shaded gently into more festive activity; in early December, E.H.W. Hulse of the Scots Guards wrote that he was planning to organise a concert party for Christmas Day, which would “give the enemy every conceivable form of song in harmony” in response to frequent choruses of Deutschland Über Alles.

Approach to Christmas

In the lead up to Christmas 1914, there were several peace initiatives. The Open Christmas Letter was a public message for peace addressed “To the Women of Germany and Austria“, signed by a group of 101 British women suffragettes at the end of 1914 as the first Christmas of World War I approached.

Benedictus XV.jpg

Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, had begged for an official truce between the warring governments.

“He asked that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.”

This attempt was officially rebuffed.

Christmas 1914

British and German troops meeting in no man’s land during the unofficial truce (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector)

Roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in the unofficial cessations of hostility along the Western Front.

The first truce started on Christmas Eve 1914, when German troops decorated the area around their trenches in the region of Ypres, Belgium and particularly in Saint-Yvon (called Saint-Yves, in Plugstreet/Ploegstraat – Comines-Warneton), where Capt. Bruce Bairnsfather described the truce.

The Germans placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then continued the celebration by singing Christmas carols. The British responded by singing carols of their own. The two sides continued by shouting Christmas greetings to each other. Soon thereafter, there were excursions across No Man’s Land, where small gifts were exchanged, such as food, tobacco and alcohol, and souvenirs such as buttons and hats.

The artillery in the region fell silent. The truce also allowed a breathing spell where recently killed soldiers could be brought back behind their lines by burial parties. Joint services were held. In many sectors, the truce lasted through Christmas night, continuing until New Year’s Day in others.

 

LtGen W N Congreve.jpg

On the day itself, Brigadier-General Walter Congreve, then commanding 18 Infantry Brigade, stationed near Neuve Chapelle, wrote a letter recalling the Germans initiated by calling a truce for the day. One of his brigade’s men bravely lifted his head above the parapet and others from both sides walked onto no man’s land. Officers and men shook hands and exchanged cigarettes and cigars, one of his Captains

“smoked a cigar with the best shot in the German army”,

the latter no more than 18 years old. Congreve admitted he was reluctant to personally witness the scene of the truce for fear he would be a prime target for German snipers.

Bruce Bairnsfather, who served throughout the war, wrote:

I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.

Future nature writer Henry Williamson, then a nineteen-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, wrote to his mother on Boxing Day:

“Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn’t it?”

Captain Sir Edward Hulse reported how the first interpreter he met from the German lines was from Suffolk where he had left his girlfriend and a 3.5 hp motorcycle. Hulse went on to describe a sing-song which

“ended up with ‘Auld lang syne‘ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Captain Robert Patrick Miles, King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, who was attached to the Royal Irish Rifles recalled in an edited letter that was published in both the Daily Mail and the Wellington Journal & Shrewsbury News in January 1915, following his death in action on 30 December 1914:

Friday (Christmas Day). We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever.

The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight.

The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.

Of the Germans he wrote:

“They are distinctly bored with the war…In fact, one of them wanted to know what on earth we were doing here fighting them.” The truce in that sector continued into Boxing Day; he commented about the Germans, “The beggars simply disregard all our warnings to get down from off their parapet, so things are at a deadlock. We can’t shoot them in cold blood…I cannot see how we can get them to return to business.”

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (24 and 25 December) 1914, Alfred Anderson’s unit of the 1st/5th Battalion of Black Watch was billeted in a farmhouse away from the front line. In a later interview (2003), Anderson, the last known surviving Scottish veteran of the war, vividly recalled Christmas Day and said:

I remember the silence, the eerie sound of silence. Only the guards were on duty. We all went outside the farm buildings and just stood listening. And, of course, thinking of people back home. All I’d heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire and distant German voices. But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas’, even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.

Nor were the observations confined to the British. French Leutnant Johannes Niemann wrote:

“grabbed my binoculars and looking cautiously over the parapet saw the incredible sight of our soldiers exchanging cigarettes, schnapps and chocolate with the enemy.”

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, issued orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops.  Adolf Hitler, then a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce.

In the Comines sector of the front there was an early fraternisation between German and French soldiers in December 1914, during a short truce, and there are at least two other testimonials, from French soldiers, of similar behaviours in sectors where German and French companies opposed each other. Gervais Morillon wrote to his parents: ‘The Boches waved a white flag and shouted “Kamarades, Kamarades, rendez-vous.”

When we didn’t move they came towards us unarmed, led by an officer. Although we are not clean they are disgustingly filthy. I am telling you this but don’t speak of it to anyone. We must not mention it even to other soldiers.’ Gustave Berthier wrote: ‘On Christmas day the Boches made a sign showing they wished to speak to us. They said they didn’t want to shoot … They were tired of making war, they were married like me, they didn’t have any differences with the French but with the English.’

In sections of the front where German and Belgian troops faced each other in December 1914, there was at least one such instance when a truce was achieved at the request of Belgian soldiers who wished to send letters back to their families, over the German-occupied parts of their own country.[28]

Richard Schirrmann, who was in a German regiment holding a position on the Bernhardstein, one of the mountains of the Vosges, wrote an account of events in December 1915: “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines ….. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over.” He was separated from the French troops by a narrow No Man’s Land and described the landscape as: “Strewn with shattered trees, the ground ploughed up by shellfire, a wilderness of earth, tree-roots and tattered uniforms.” Military discipline was soon restored, but Schirrmann pondered over the incident, and whether “thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other.” He went on to found the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919.[29]

Football Matches

Many accounts of the truce involve one or more football matches played in no-man’s land. This was mentioned in some of the earliest reports, with a letter written by a doctor attached to the Rifle Brigade, published in The Times on 1 January 1915, reported

“a football match… played between them and us in front of the trench.”

A wide range of similar stories have been told over the years, often naming specific units or a precise score. Some accounts of the game bring in elements of fiction by Robert Graves, a British poet and writer who reconstructed the encounter in a story published in 1962; in Graves’s version, the score was 3–2 to the Germans.

However, the truth of the accounts has been disputed by some historians; in 1984, Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton concluded that there were probably attempts to play organised matches which failed due to the state of the ground, but that the contemporary reports were either hearsay or refer to ‘kick-about’ matches with ‘made-up footballs’ such as a bully-beef tin.

Chris Baker, former chairman of The Western Front Association and author of The Truce: The Day the War Stopped is also skeptical, but says that although there is little hard evidence, the most likely place that an organised match could have taken place was near the village of Messines:

“There are two references to a game being played on the British side, but nothing from the Germans. If somebody one day found a letter from a German soldier who was in that area, then we would have something credible.”

In fact, there is a German reference. Leutnant Kurt Zehmisch of Germany’s 134th Saxons Infantry Regiment said that the English “brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was.”[34] In 2011, Mike Dash concluded that

“there is plenty of evidence that football was played that Christmas Day—mostly by men of the same nationality, but in at least three or four places between troops from the opposing armies”.

 

A wide variety of units were reported in contemporary accounts to have taken part in games; Dash listed the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment pitched against “Scottish troops”; the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders against unidentified Germans (with the Scots reported to have won 4–1); the Royal Field Artillery against “Prussians and Hanovers” near Ypres; and the Lancashire Fusiliers, based near Le Touquet, with the specific detail of a bully beef ration tin as the “ball”.One recent writer has identified 29 separate reports of football, though does not give substantive details.

Eastern Front

A separate manifestation of the Christmas truce in December 1914 occurred on the Eastern front, where the first move originated from the Austrian commanders, at some uncertain level of the military hierarchy. The Russians responded positively and soldiers eventually met in no man’s land.

Public Awareness

The events of the truce were not reported for a week, in an unofficial press embargo which was eventually broken by the New York Times on 31 December. The British papers quickly followed, printing numerous first-hand accounts from soldiers in the field, taken from letters home to their families, and editorials on “one of the greatest surprises of a surprising war”. By 8 January pictures had made their way to the press, and both the Mirror and Sketch printed front-page photographs of British and German troops mingling and singing between the lines. The tone of the reporting was strongly positive, with the Times endorsing the “lack of malice” felt by both sides and the Mirror regretting that the “absurdity and the tragedy” would begin again.

Coverage in Germany was more muted, with some newspapers strongly criticising those who had taken part, and no pictures published. In France, meanwhile, the greater level of press censorship ensured that the only word that spread of the truce came from soldiers at the front or first-hand accounts told by wounded men in hospitals.

The press was eventually forced to respond to the growing rumours by reprinting a government notice that fraternising with the enemy constituted treason, and in early January an official statement on the truce was published, claiming it had happened on restricted sectors of the British front, and amounted to little more than an exchange of songs which quickly degenerated into shooting.

Later Truces

After Christmas 1914, sporadic attempts were made at seasonal truces; a German unit attempted to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915, but were warned off by the British opposite them, and later in the year, in November, a Saxon unit briefly fraternised with a Liverpool battalion. In December 1915, there were explicit orders by the Allied commanders to forestall any repeat of the previous Christmas truce. Individual units were encouraged to mount raids and harass the enemy line, whilst communicating with the enemy was discouraged by artillery barrages along the front line throughout the day. The prohibition was not completely effective, however, and a small number of brief truces occurred.

An eyewitness account of one truce, by Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers, with offers to hold a ceasefire for the day and to play a football match. It came to nothing, as the brigade commander threatened repercussions for the lack of discipline, and insisted on a resumption of firing in the afternoon. Another member of Griffith’s battalion, Bertie Felstead, later recalled that one man had produced a football, resulting in “a free-for-all; there could have been 50 on each side”, before they were ordered back.[42]

In an adjacent sector, a short truce to bury the dead between the lines led to official repercussions; a company commander, Sir Iain Colquhoun of the Scots Guards, was court-martialled for defying standing orders to the contrary. While he was found guilty and reprimanded, the punishment was annulled by General Haig and Colquhoun remained in his position; the official leniency may perhaps have been because he was related to H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister.

In the Decembers of 1916 and 1917, German overtures to the British for truces were recorded without any success. In some French sectors, singing and an exchange of thrown gifts was occasionally recorded, though these may simply have reflected a seasonal extension of the live-and-let-live approach common in the trenches.

At Easter 1915 there were recorded instances of truces between Orthodox troops of opposing sides on the Eastern front. The Bulgarian writer Yordan Yovkov, serving as an officer near the Greek border at the Mesta river, witnessed one such truce. It inspired his short story ‘Holy Night’, translated into English in 2013 by Krastu Banaev.

Legacy and historical significance

 

Although the popular tendency has been to see the December 1914 Christmas Truces as unique and therefore of romantic rather than political significance, they have also been interpreted as part of the widespread non-cooperation with the war spirit and conduct by serving soldiers.

In his book on trench warfare, historian Tony Ashworth describes what he calls the ‘live and let live system.’ Complicated local truces and agreements not to fire at each other were developed by men along the front throughout the war. These often began with agreement not to attack each other at tea, meal or washing times, and in some places became so developed that whole sections of the front would see few casualties for extended periods of time. This system, Ashworth argues, ‘gave soldiers some control over the conditions of their existence.’

The December 1914 Christmas Truces then can be seen as not unique, but as the most dramatic example of non-cooperation with the war spirit that included refusal to fight, unofficial truces, mutinies, strikes, and peace protests.

  • In the 1933 play Petermann schließt Frieden oder Das Gleichnis vom deutschen Opfer (Petermann makes peace: or, the parable of German sacrifice), written by Nazi writer and World War I veteran Heinz Steguweit (German), a German soldier, accompanied by Christmas carols sung by his comrades, erects an illuminated Christmas tree between the trenches, but is shot dead by the enemy. Later, when the fellow soldiers find his body, they notice in horror that enemy snipers have shot down every single Christmas light from the tree.[49]
  • The 1967 song “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen was based on the Christmas truce.
  • The 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War includes a scene of a Christmas truce with British and German soldiers sharing jokes, alcohol and songs.
  • The video for the 1983 song “Pipes of Peace” by Paul McCartney depicts a fictionalized version of the Christmas truce.[50]
  • The final episode of the BBC television series Blackadder Goes Forth references the Christmas truce, with the main character Edmund Blackadder having played in a football match. He is also seen being annoyed at having had a goal disallowed for offside.[51]
  • The song “All Together Now” by Liverpool band The Farm took its inspiration from the Christmas Day Truce of 1914. The song has been re-recorded by The Peace Collective for release in December 2014 to mark the centenary of the event.[52]
  • John McCutcheon‘s song “Christmas in the Trenches,” from his 1984 album Winter Solstice, presents a composite account of attested events of the truce from the perspective of a fictitious English soldier. (Mike Harding‘s song “Christmas 1914”, from his 1989 album Plutonium Alley, and Garth Brooks‘s song “Belleau Wood”, from his 1997 album Sevens, contain similar depictions of the truce.)
  • The 1992 film A Midnight Clear depicts a Christmas truce loosely based on events from the 1914 truce, although the setting is moved to the end of WWII.[53]
  • In the intro of the 1995 episode “The River of Stars” of the series Space: Above and Beyond images of the Christmas Truce of 1914 were shown.
  • The truce is dramatized in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noël (English: Merry Christmas), depicted through the eyes of French, British and German soldiers.[54] The film, written and directed by Christian Carion,[55] was screened out of competition at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.[56]
  • In 2008, the truce was depicted on stage at the Pantages Theater in Minneapolis, in the radio musical drama All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. It was created and directed by Peter Rothstein, and co-produced by Theater Latté Da and the vocal ensemble Cantus, both Minneapolis-based organizations. It has continued to play at the Pantages Theater each December since its premiere.
  • Ahead of the centenary of the truce (December 2014), English composer Chris Eaton and singer Abby Scott produced the song, 1914 – The Carol of Christmas, to benefit British armed forces charities. At 5 December 2014 it had reached top of the iTunes Christmas chart.[57]
  • In 2014 the Northumbria and Newcastle Universities Martin Luther King Peace Committee[58] produced resources to enable schools and churches to mark the December 1914 Christmas Truces. These included lesson plans, hand-outs, worksheets, PowerPoint slide shows, and full plans for assemblies, and carol services/Christmas productions. The authors explained that their purpose was both to enable schoolteachers to help children learn about the remarkable events of December 1914, but also to use the theme of Christmas to provide a counterpoint to the UK government’s glorification of the First World War as heroic. As the Peace Committee argues, “These spontaneous acts of festive goodwill directly contradicted orders from high command, and offered an evocative and hopeful – albeit brief – recognition of shared humanity”[59] – and thereby, they argue, give a rereading of the traditional Christmas message of “on earth peace, good will toward men.”[60]

Monuments

A Christmas truce memorial was unveiled in Frelinghien, France, on 11 November 2008. Also on that day, at the spot where, on Christmas Day 1914, their regimental ancestors came out from their trenches to play football, men from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers played a football match with the German Battalion 371. The Germans won 2–1.

On 12 December 2014, a memorial was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, England by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and the England national football team manager Roy Hodgson.The Football Remembers memorial was designed by ten-year-old schoolboy Spencer Turner after a UK-wide competition

World War I – Chemical Weapons – History & Background

Belfast Child

Chemical weapons in World War I

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Chemical Weapons in World War I

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Chemical weapons in World War I were primarily used to demoralize, injure, and kill entrenched defenders, against whom the indiscriminate and generally slow-moving or static nature of gas clouds would be most effective. The types of weapons employed ranged from disabling chemicals, such as tear gas and the severe mustard gas, to lethal agents like phosgene and chlorine. This chemical warfare was a major component of the first global war and first total war of the 20th century. The killing capacity of gas was limited, with four percent of combat deaths caused by gas. Gas was unlike most other weapons of the period because it was possible to develop effective countermeasures, such as gas masks. In the later stages of the war, as the use of gas increased, its overall effectiveness diminished. The…

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